Hong Kong’s former chief executive Donald Tsang, the highest-ranking ex-official to be charged in the city’s history, has received a prison term of 20 months for misconduct in public office.
Analysts say the Wednesday verdict has reaffirmed the former British colony’s judiciary independence and rule of law while serving as an example for China’s anti-corruption campaign.
They also expect Tsang’s conviction to have little impact on the city’s upcoming chief executive election in March, which they mock as a “small-circle” race to be rigged by the top leader in China.
Wrapping up a six-week trial, the court found Tsang guilty of having failed to disclose a conflict of interest. Tsang had deliberately concealed private rental negotiations with property tycoon Bill Wong between 2010 and 2012 while his cabinet discussed and approved a digital broadcasting license for a now defunct radio company, Wave Media, in which Wong was a major shareholder.
High Court justice Andrew Chan praised Tsang for his four-decade-long dedication to public service before reducing the sentence by 10 months.
“Never in my judicial career have I seen a man fallen from so high,” Chan said during sentencing, as Tsang stood in the dock with his teary family in the public gallery.
Chan concluded that Tsang had breached the trust placed in him by both the people of Hong Kong and the people of China.
Expressing her sorrow, Tsang’s wife Selina Tsang told reporters outside the courtroom that the family will file an appeal.
“Today is a very dark day. The entire family is disappointed and upset,” she said.
In addition, Tsang is slated to face a retrial in September for a bribery charge that the jury failed to reach a verdict on last week.
Selina Tsang, center, wife of former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang, is accompanied by her two sons, Simon Tsang Hing-yin, left, and Thomas Tsang Hing-shun, to walk out of the High Court in Hong Kong, Feb. 22, 2017.
Rule of law
Analysts say the verdict has testified to the independence of the city’s legal system while sending a warning to all public office holders who abuse their power, be they in Hong Kong or China.
“It’s also important that the maintenance of the rule of law and an independent judicial system is the best way to prevent or to fight [against] corruption,” said Richard Tsoi, a democratic movement activist in Hong Kong.
The trial, in particular, has served as a satire to those corrupt officials in China, many of whom enjoy political protection, said radical lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, known as “Long hair.”
“If the case of Donald Tsang happens in China, I don’t think he needs to face the court anyway, [especially] if he’s a friend of Mr. Xi Jinping,” Leung said.
Warning for corrupt officials
The lawmaker also said he believed Tsang’s verdict might spell bad news for C.Y. Leung because there have been calls by lawmakers for the city’s anti-corruption watchdog to investigate payments received by the incumbent chief executive from an Australian firm in 2014.
Most observers, however, do not see any negative impact from Tsang’s case on the upcoming leadership election slated for March 26.
Media speculation has been that the campaign of one of the race’s hopefuls, John Tsang, may be slightly tainted given his close relationship with Donald Tsang (no blood relation) – an argument both Leung and Tsoi disagreed with.
Hong Kong's Financial Secretary John Tsang waves to reporters as he leaves his office in Hong Kong, Dec.12, 2016.
Little impact on March election
They said John Tsang’s bigger rival, Carrie Lam had also worked under Donald Tsang. And both candidates were among more than 40 political figures who wrote letters in support of the ex-leader.
In addition, both are seen as being pro-China, although John Tsang is fairly accepted by pro-democracy representatives in the 1,194-membered election committee, which will vote on the city’s next chief executive.
During the campaign, local media have also coined John Tsang as Donald Tsang 2.0 and Lam as C. Y. Leung 2.0 to demonstrate their pro-establishment nature while their recent approval rates are close at 38 percent and 35 percent respectively.
But such a political labeling means nothing in the leadership race as China will always have the final say on the results, said Zhang Jian of Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
“Beijing’s attitudes play a key part in determining the election’s results. The final [victor] will be the candidate whom Beijing supports openly or under the table, ” Zhang said.
In other words, Lam is expected to win the race unless Beijing has changed its mind, lawmaker Leung said.
“It seems that Carrie Lam has a better chance. But well, who knows? Because it’s all decided by one person, Mr. Xi Jinping,” he added.