Authorities in Hong Kong have charged its former chief executive, Donald Tsang, with two counts of misconduct while serving in public office, a development many analysts say will help the city regain its reputation in combating corruption.
He is the territory's most high-profile government official facing a corruption scandal. He served as Hong Kong's leader from 2005 to 2012.
The fact that the territory’s Independent Commission Against Corruption [ICAC] has taken more than three years to wrap up Tsang's graft investigation, however, raises concerns as to whether it is completely free of political influence.
“Justice delayed is justice denied. Many of us can’t understand why the investigation has taken so long,” said Emily Lau, a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.
On Monday, the anti-graft body brought Tsang to court, concluding he accepted gifts from his tycoon friends in Hong Kong in the form of private trips on luxury yachts and private jets. Tsang has admitted making some of these trips, but he said there was no conflict of interest since his office had paid the fares at market levels.
The case is one of several in recent years that have raised concerns in the territory about close ties between government officials and wealthy businessmen. Former government official Rafael Hui was sentenced last December to seven-and-a-half years in prison for accepting bribes from a high-powered Hong Kong developer.
The 70-year-old Tsang was further involved in a sweetheart rental deal for a penthouse in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. He had failed to disclose his interest in the lease, while nominating an architect who worked on the apartment's interior design for a government award, the ICAC said.
Tsang, who stepped down from his seven-year leadership post in June 2012, has become the highest ranking former official to be embroiled in corruption-related offenses, and the latest in a string of scandals that have swept senior businessmen and former political figures in the financial hub.
Prior to a court appearance, Tsang insisted his “conscience is clear,” and he had every confidence the court would clear his name.
Lawmaker Lau said she and the public are waiting patiently for justice to prevail and the accused to have a fair trial.
Lau said she expects the ICAC to clarify, however, its longer-than-expected investigative work. The public cast doubt on the commission's independence after the controversial appointment of pro-Beijing Maria Tam, formerly a National People’s Congress deputy, to a key post late last year.
Nevertheless, Liao Ran, senior program coordinator of Transparency International, said the anti-corruption body’s indictment of Tsang says a lot about its autonomy. Compared to China, Hong Kong has set up a better example in combating corruption, the London-based researcher said.
“The process [is] transparent and fair, that would bring confidence of people to Hong Kong. In China, if you want to investigate one corrupted official, then you might face a lot of different pressure from different channels,” said Liao.
Transparency International placed Hong Kong 14th on its 2014 world corruption perception index ranking, while China lagged far behind in 100th place, among more than 170 countries or territories in the world.
Lau also said she remains proud of Hong Kong as the territory is like a “Disneyland,” compared to China, where the magnitude of corruption is so much greater. Under such circumstances, it carries weight for Hong Kong to ensure a democratic system through universal suffrage, Lau said, adding the city can’t count on the small circle of elites in Beijing to safeguard the integrity of its top leaders.
“The candidates who can run for elections in this small circle race are only those who are approved by Beijing, so you want Beijing to supervise its candidates better? Don’t hold your breath,” she said.
Tsang, who is free on bail, is due back in court next on Nov. 13. He is required to notify the court and the ICAC if he changes residence or plans to travel outside Hong Kong.