Donald Tsang

Faith, family and friends brought Donald Tsang comfort through his many trials

Even former political opponents came out to support Hong Kong’s 73-year-old former chief executive, whose fall from grace has taken a toll on his health.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 November, 2017, 6:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 10:02am

When lawyers for Hong Kong’s erstwhile leader delivered their closing remarks at his bribery trial, they seemed to appeal to the emotions of the jury, and also to fate.

“I now place Mr Tsang in your hands,” barrister Selwyn Yu SC declared on October 27, in his final statement before taking his seat.

But for Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, 73, a devout Catholic, his moment of truth in the dock on Friday was probably defined more by doctrine than destiny.

“He told me he would leave it to God. He believes in his innocence,” said columnist Chip Tsao, recounting his conversation with Tsang weeks before the trial began in September.

Tsang avoided being convicted of accepting an advantage as the city’s chief executive as jurors were unable to return a verdict after 14 hours of deliberation.

Friday’s hung jury brought to a close Tsang’s second trial for accepting an advantage as the city’s chief executive, a position he held over two terms from 2005 to 2012.

Tsang faced misconduct charges after leaving office and was convicted on one count this February. He was cleared of a second count of misconduct in public office, but the verdict on a third count, accepting an advantage as the chief executive, was also left hanging by an indecisive jury, necessitating the second trial which began in September.

The jury’s indecision may or may not take Tsang closer to the end of a string of hearings. He has at least one appeal under way, and possibly a third trial.

Tsang became the first Hong Kong leader to serve a jail term when he was sentenced to 20 months’ imprisonment in February.

“Never in my judicial career have I seen a man fallen from so high,” presiding judge Mr Justice Andrew Chan Hing-wai said then.

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As a typhoon brewed one night in August, emptying the city’s streets, Tsao and Tsang caught up over a nostalgic dinner.

By that time, Tsang had been granted bail pending his appeal against the conviction in February.

“We talked about Hong Kong. We talked about some mutual friends,” Tsao recalled.

Tsao said his first impression of Tsang was at a parliamentary session in London in the mid-80s, two decades after Tsang joined the government as an executive officer in 1967.

Tsang, then 45, would have been the deputy secretary of the General Duties Branch for the British colonial government at that time, and was in London to work out Hongkongers’ right of abode in the United Kingdom.

“I was very impressed by his good command of English, and his passion and enthusiasm for the people of Hong Kong,” Tsao said.

After that, Tsang’s career took off. He became the first Chinese Financial Secretary in 1995, then Chief Secretary and then the city’s second chief executive. He was known for saving the city from the Asian financial crisis in 1997 when he was the finance chief, and pushing for constitutional reform after he became the city’s leader, in an effort described by his former justice minister as a “selfless act” as he risked Beijing’s trust in him.

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The dinner conversation also touched on Tsang’s time as the city’s leader, Tsao said. He was criticised for his housing policy but during his tenure, society was largely harmonious, free from the radical protests and separatist calls to break away from China that have surfaced in recent years.

“I told him during the seven years he was the chief executive, it seemed the community was more stable and happier. He was quite pleased,” Tsao said.

But Tsang, whom Tsao described as a “down-to-earth” and devoted official, ran into a credibility crisis when his habits – taking private jet and yacht trips from friends – became the subject of press scrutiny in February 2012.

The media reports also revealed Tsang’s short-term retirement penthouse, which is at the centre of the two trials.

Tsang was accused of accepting from Wave Media a custom refurbishment worth HK$3.8 million (US$487,000) for the mainland penthouse, and in return, being “favourably disposed” to the local broadcaster.

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Whether Tsang will be spending a large part of his golden years in jail remains uncertain, depending on the outcome of his ongoing appeal.

The lengthy court battles have taken their toll.

Towards the end of the 25-day second trial, Tsang, usually clad in a suit with a bow-tie, no longer wore a cheery smile.

Instead, it was replaced by wariness – and coughing – most often when he strode through the autumn breeze to duck into the government-issued seven-seater car that picked him up every day at the court’s front door at 4.30pm.

On October 17, the 14th day of the trial, he succumbed to his respiratory condition, and called for a short break during the otherwise fast-paced proceedings.

He was sent to hospital twice when he was behind bars from late February to mid-April.

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All along, Tsang had the support of his friends and family, who either accompanied him to court or visited him as the trials were going on.

This time around, in particular, the list included Tsang’s former Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung and Gary Chan Hak-kan, a pro-Beijing legislator from Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Former Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who Tsang convinced to relocate from the United States to join Hong Kong’s civil service, also paid him a visit.

Vicar General of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese Reverend Dominic Chan Chi-ming and the new provincial of Society of Jesus’s Chinese province, Reverend Stephen Chow Sau-yan, were also among Tsang’s visitors.

Tsang also received support from those who used to be his staunchest opponents.

“He may have flaws but he never comes across as greedy,” Albert Ho Chun-yan, a former Democratic Party lawmaker, said, after visiting him. Three of Ho’s fellow party members, in an almost unimaginable gesture, also went to see Tsang towards the end of the trial.

Tsao said he visited Tsang expecting that he would be in need of comfort. At the dinner in August, he recalled asking the former leader how he was coming to terms with the trials.

Tsang told him that he would leave it to God, whose church he had been visiting almost every day.

But Tsang also found solace in his constant companion. His wife Selina Tsang Pou Siu-mei faithfully accompanied him to the hearings, with the couple holding hands – and sometimes donning outfits in matching colours – as they entered and left the court each day.