HONG KONG - It has been a tough run for Hong Kong’s top officials since the 1997 return to China. And controversy seems to be on the agenda for the election of the next chief executive.
One former number-two official is already behind bars for bribery, and the man who was his boss - Donald Tsang - is now in court, also on corruption charges to which he has entered a not guilty plea. The prosecution’s witness list in the Tsang case includes two former chief secretaries; the territory’s second-highest post.
One is Henry Tang, whose run for chief executive in 2012 failed amid an investigation that revealed extensive illegal construction at his home. The other is Carrie Lam, who on Thursday resigned her position to join the contest for chief executive. The election by a Beijing-dominated committee of 1,200 is set for March.
The timing of Tsang’s trial provides an unfortunate backdrop for the upcoming election campaign for Hong Kong’s next leader, serving as a reminder of the cozy personal and business relationships that can develop between the government and the wealthy business and professional elites that the administration relies on for political support.
The first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was forced to resign following mass protests after an effort to enact unpopular legislation on national security. Hong Kong’s third and current leader, C.Y. Leung, recently announced that he would not run for a second term, ostensibly for family reasons - though he is widely believed to have wanted re-election.
Leung is deeply unpopular, and although he has a daughter whose personal troubles have been widely publicized, it is widely suspected that Beijing wanted a change.
In between those two leaders came Tsang, a British-trained civil servant picked by Beijing as Tung's successor. Known by his trademark bow tie, Tsang is now in the territory's High Court on three charges of corruption, making him the highest-ranking Hong Kong official ever to be prosecuted. Until his charging, that dubious distinction belonged to Rafael Hui, a former chief secretary under Tsang, who is in prison for accepting large bribes from a major property developer.
Another of Tsang's underlings, former chief secretary Henry Tang, is on the prosecution's witness list. He ran for chief executive against Leung in 2012, but lost amid revelations that extensive illegal construction work had been done at his luxury home.
Also on the witness list is Carrie Lam, another veteran civil servant who until Thursday was the sitting chief secretary. Before telling the public of her plans, she told a closed-door meeting of business leaders that she had just resigned to clear the way for a run for the top job.
Outgoing Chief Executive C.Y. Leung has also not been free of various allegations over the years, most recently involving a $6.4 million payment from the Australian engineering firm UGL for his services.
The money was paid in two installments after he took office. Leung has denied any wrongdoing. The ICAC opened an inquiry headed by a veteran agent, but she was removed from her position in 2015, sparking speculation that the investigation by her unit was being impeded. She then resigned from the ICAC ending a 30-year career. The commission has denied that her removal was for political reasons.
With Lam in the race, there are at least three hopefuls. The other two are judge Woo Kwok-hing and legislator Regina Ip, who was vilified during large-scale street protests in 2003 when, as secretary for security, she was in charge of national security legislation that was ultimately withdrawn.
A fourth potential candidate is former financial secretary John Tsang, who still awaits word on Beijing’s acceptance of his resignation.
Hardly out of the starting gate, Lam has already found herself at the center of controversy involving a plan to use a prime piece of land in a cultural district for construction of a museum housing artifacts from the Palace Museum in Beijing. The offer of the museum was made to Lam herself and kept a closely guarded secret, only revealed to the public shortly before she announced her candidacy.
Under the offer, Hong Kong is to build a $450 million facility to house the treasures. A well-known local architect has been chosen, but there has been no public consultation and there was no tender for the architect.
Watching events unfold is another former chief secretary, Anson Chan, who served under both the last colonial government and the first administration of the new SAR government.
Chan said that while Hong Kong people will not necessarily link the Tsang trial to the race for chief executive, “it’s a very sorry state of affairs where you have a retired chief executive having to face charges of conflict of interest or corruption, and you have a chief secretary now in prison because of corruption offenses. It certainly doesn’t do the credibility either of the SAR administration nor the individuals involved any good.”
Referring to the museum controversy involving Lam, Chan said, “... there is a need for honesty and transparency in the next chief executive, because as we have seen with the fiasco over the handling of the construction of the palace museum in Hong Kong, it won’t do in terms of securing public support if you circumvent due process and the whole process is non-transparent.”