Donald Tsang’s loss is a victory for Hong Kong’s rule of law
Deng Yuwen lauds the city’s justice system for showing that even its top leader is not above the law – a great example to mainland China, where abuse of power remains rampant among officials
Former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was sentenced to 20 months in prison at the end of his high-profile corruption trial, after the jury found him guilty of misconduct in public office. This made him the highest-ranking city official ever to be convicted and imprisoned.
Two recent cases have aroused public concern in Hong Kong: Tsang’s trial and the conviction and jailing of seven policemen for assaulting a pro-democracy activist. The second case sparked heated debate both here and in mainland China, with many voices – particularly in the state media on the mainland and mainstream public opinion – concluding that the rule of law has weakened in Hong Kong. Some scholars even declared the rule of law dead.
Perhaps there is some room for improvement. Admittedly the city’s legal system has gone through some changes in recent years. However, to declare the rule by law in regression or even dead based on a single case would be too sensational.
Indeed, should such a pronouncement be true, the Donald Tsang trial would make no sense. To observers in both mainland China and Taiwan, it seems rather incredible that a former chief executive of Hong Kong would be jailed for 20 months simply for the deed he had been accused of. However, this shows exactly that the rule of law in Hong Kong remains robust, and that its spirit still stands – all are equal before the law.
Tsang faced three charges. One was a bribery charge, on which the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The other two were charges of misconduct in public office – one concerned his failure to disclose his negotiations over a Shenzhen penthouse (for which he was convicted), and the other had to do with a government honour awarded to Barrie Ho Chow-lai, the interior designer for his Shenzhen penthouse (for which Tsang was acquitted).
During his trial, the mainland media also reported on the revelations about his other “crimes”, including the fact that he and his wife had taken rides on tycoons’ yacht and private jet to Macau and Thailand, though Tsang claimed to have paid for them at the market rate, and that he once accepted a second-hand treadmill as a gift.
Watch: Donald Tsang sentenced to 20 months in prison for misconduct
Watching these developments on the sidelines, many mainlanders could not help but feel aggrieved on Tsang’s behalf, as such supposed misdeeds would be trivial on the mainland, not uncommon among its officials. What a pitiful life it is being Hong Kong’s chief executive! Even in Taiwan, the media there pointed out, no leader could ever be convicted on such grounds in the island’s current legal system.
But in Hong Kong, they are enough to ruin a respected official’s good reputation and even land him in prison. At Tsang’s sentencing, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Andrew Chan Hing-wai, was moved to say: “Never in my judicial career have I seen a man fallen from so high.”
The judge’s disappointment was palpable. As he put it, the seriousness of the case “lies in the position the defendant occupied: the office of the chief executive”. As Hong Kong’s leader, he was accountable not only to the people of Hong Kong, but also to the central government. Regrettably, Tsang breached the trust placed in him by both the people of Hong Kong and the people of China.
How well put. Integrity is the top quality for any senior official or political leader, who must be held accountable to the people who have put their trust in him. Loss of integrity of character causes loss of political integrity, and abuse of power will happen.
I believe Tsang must have sworn as he took office that he would dedicate himself with integrity to serving the people as an official. I am sure he sincerely believed it. But in a momentary lapse of self-restraint, he used his power for private gain, thus abusing the integrity of his office.
Hong Kong is governed by the rule of law, and it is proud of being a city that has a strong rule of law, even though it is not a democracy.
Tsang’s trial once again underlines the majesty of such strength, and offers a powerful rebuttal to those who say the rule of law in Hong Kong is in decline. The verdict also creates a precedent – and proves that even the chief executive is not above the law.
As we know, the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Hong Kong reports directly to the chief executive. This arrangement makes it difficult for the ICAC, which has a mandate to monitor all public servants, to monitor the chief executive. Moreover, Section 3 of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance in Hong Kong provides that a public officer who, without the permission of the chief executive, solicits or accepts an advantage shall be guilty of an offence. This again excludes the chief executive from the law’s coverage.
In this light, the Tsang trial has created a useful precedent for hauling up the chief executive for misconduct, and sends a message that the city’s most powerful official is not above the law. This has undoubtedly strengthened official oversight over the chief executive.
Of course, for Hong Kong to faithfully apply the rule of law, the supervision over officials, particularly the chief executive, should be further improved.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, a former ICAC investigator, said after the trial that Hong Kong’s executive-led system places a great deal of power in the hands of the chief executive. Thus, it is necessary for the chief executive to be subject to the bribery laws. In addition, the chief executive should be required to make more stringent declarations, to plug existing loopholes. Otherwise, Hong Kong’s top leader is liable to behave like an emperor who is above the law.
What did mainland officials think of Tsang’s conviction? Did they perhaps lament the hardship of being an official in Hong Kong? I hope so. If so, they will work hard to be the people’s servants instead of their masters. In mainland China, though the anti-corruption campaign in recent years has cleaned up some abuse of power, officials at all levels of governments still wield great power and supervision remains inadequate. Hence corruption is still rife. Should the rule by law in mainland China be half as strong as Hong Kong’s rule of law, the government would be much cleaner. Therefore, supervision over public power can never be too tight.
Kudos to the justice system in Hong Kong. Tsang’s conviction should serve as a reminder to all officials to practise self-restraint even in the face of great temptation.
Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank