Errant Donald Tsang misjudged the Hong Kong he swore to serve
John Chan says the former chief executive, now jailed for misconduct, seemed to think the system of cosy privilege that existed during the colonial days would be tolerated after the handover
Thirty-seven years ago, I was working as a civil servant in the Transport Department’s licensing division. In the summer of that year, we carried out a major licensing exercise for school buses.
The department had to rush to complete the overhaul by September that year, so that all licences could be issued before the school term started. With the help of extra staff deployed from other sections of the division, we finally got the work done.
To show their appreciation for our efforts, representatives of the school bus operators sent us 10 boxes of cakes as a gift. However, just as division staff were about to enjoy the cakes, B. Y. Chiu, then a senior executive officer in the department, unexpectedly told us we could not accept the gift as its value exceeded the amount civil servants were permitted to receive.
So instead of enjoying the cakes, we spent an afternoon busily looking for a senior citizens’ home to send the cakes to.
By this yardstick, no right-thinking member of Hong Kong society could forgive or condone what former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has done 30 years on.
Tsang was convicted and imprisoned for one count of misconduct in public office. He was found guilty of deliberately concealing his private rental negotiations with property tycoon Bill Wong Cho-bau while the Executive Council he chaired discussed and approved a digital broadcasting licence for a company in which Wong was a major shareholder.
When passing sentence, High Court judge Andrew Chan Hing-wai said, “Never in my judicial career have I seen a man fallen from so high.”
In fact, morally, Tsang had fallen from such heights even before his conviction. In 2012, local media revealed that the then chief executive had maintained cosy links with tycoons. He accepted rides on private jets and yachts, and once visited a casino parlour in Macau operated by people of dubious background.
After these links were exposed and he was criticised for improprieties, Tsang expressed his regret and lamented that Hong Kong people’s expectations of the standard required of civil servants had changed. I strongly rebutted that in a Chinese-language article I wrote in 2012: “Mr Tsang, the people have not changed, the civil servants have not changed – we still hold very high standards ... You are the one who has changed.”
Now, as then, the public demands high standards of propriety from civil servants. Before the change of sovereignty, it was an open secret that the small clique of top government officials and a few tycoons made up the power corridor of the executive-led colonial government, where important policy decisions were made.
Tsang served faithfully in this colonial institution in the first 25 years of his career, and on the eve of the change of sovereignty, he knelt before the representative of the Queen to be knighted, evidently with the mistaken belief that the system of officials shielding one another, the subtle transfer of interest from tycoons, and the enjoyment of unspoken privilege not known to the man in the street would continue as it was during the colonial era.
Tsang once called himself a statesman (zhengzhijia) but the fact is, as a typical colonial bureaucrat, he did not possess the political vision or wisdom of even a politician (zhengke). But he was a lucky man. Because of our undemocratic system, he was able to aspire to greater things by default.
When the British felt that localisation had to be hastened and that it was time for a local Chinese to take up one of the most senior posts in the colonial government, he was next in line to become financial secretary. When the chief secretary found it difficult to work with then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, and resigned, Tsang was again next in line and took the job. And when Tung himself resigned, being next in line again, Tsang rose to the top job.
As Goethe once wrote, “Man errs as long as he strives.” In Tsang’s case, he strove mightily and erred badly.
John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party