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Troubled leaders
A former chief executive of Hong Kong is arrested by anti-graft officials

Oct 10th 2015 | HONG KONG | From the print edition


Donald Tsang denies it all

CHINA’s record of picking leaders in Hong Kong has hardly been glorious. The current chief executive—the third since China regained the territory in 1997—is hugely unpopular. The first one resigned after a public outcry over his plans for a new security bill. Now the second, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who was knighted by the British but whose once-widespread support had shrivelled by the time he left office three years ago, faces possible disgrace.

Mr Tsang was arrested on October 5th following a lengthy investigation by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). At a magistrate’s court, where he appeared wearing his trademark bow tie (see picture), two charges were read out to him. The first was that he had failed to declare his rental of a flat in the nearby Chinese city of Shenzhen from a businessman whose applications for broadcast licences were being considered by Hong Kong’s policymakers. The other charge was that Mr Tsang had proposed an architect for a public honour without revealing that the nominee had been hired to work on the flat’s interior design.
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Mr Tsang told reporters after his release on bail that his conscience was “clear” and he was sure that the trial would “exonerate” him (he is next due to appear in court on November 13th). Mr Tsang has long been a target of criticism for his behaviour while in office. He has admitted using tycoons’ yachts and jets for private trips, though he later said that he had paid commercial rates. In 2012, near the end of his term, he survived a vote of no-confidence in the legislature. This outcome was no surprise. He was helped by an electoral system that favours pro-establishment politicians, who form a majority. It was the first such vote since the end of British rule.

The ICAC, which was set up in 1974 to deal with widespread corruption then plaguing Hong Kong, is widely seen as a bellwether of the autonomy that China promised the territory. In December its work resulted in the sentencing of Mr Tsang’s former deputy, Rafael Hui Si-yan, to more than seven years in prison for accepting bribes from a property developer while he was in office. Mr Hui is the highest-ranking Hong Kong official ever jailed. Some commentators have speculated about whether the more than three years it took to investigate Mr Tsang was a sign of political pressure. The ICAC says the process was lengthy because it involved other jurisdictions, presumably meaning China.

When he left office, Mr Tsang’s support ratings were lower even than those of the first post-colonial chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, at the same point in his career, and considerably lower than those of the last British governor, Chris Patten, when he set sail for home (see chart). But the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, was never popular to begin with—not even, particularly, with the central government.

His polls remain dismal. When researchers at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) asked people to rate him on a scale of 0 to 100 in September, Mr Leung’s average score was 39.2. That survey’s director, Robert Chung Ting-yiu, says a score of less than 45 can indicate a credibility crisis.

The poll was conducted a year after a student-led movement known as Occupy Central that paralysed parts of the city for more than 11 weeks. Mr Leung (and more importantly, the central authorities) rejected the demonstrators’ demands for fully free elections when his position is next contested in 2017. If, as expected, Mr Leung stands again, his selection will again be up to a 1,200-strong committee of Hong Kong residents dominated by the Communist Party’s supporters (last time he scraped in with 689 votes).

The mood on campuses remains bitter. On October 5th some 2,000 students and staff at HKU staged a silent protest against what they allege has been political interference in the choice of a senior manager at the university. But Mr Leung can draw some comfort from splits among the democrats. Next month they face their first test at the polls since the Occupy movement, in district elections. Better-funded and disciplined pro-Communist groups are expected to do well.

From the print edition: China

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