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Good friends in wrong places
HONG KONG (SE): The former chief executive of Hong Kong, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, was sentenced to 20 months’ prison on February 22 on a charge of failing to disclose what were deemed to be spurious plans to lease a luxury penthouse in Shenzhen from an investor, Bill Wong Cho-bau, who was at the same time a major shareholder in WaveMedia and involved in applying for digital radio broadcasting licences.
The judge in the case cited Tsang’s responsibility of caring for the welfare of the residents of the Special Administrative Region of China as the chief executive between 2005 and 2012, citing his dishonesty in this matter as a serious breach of duty.
After an illustrious career as a top public servant and later chief executive, Tsang ended his public life in disgrace, admitting that he had accepted trips on luxury yachts and private jets during his time at the top from tycoons in the city.
What the people of Hong Kong and the court see as the seriousness of these matters is that they reflect the close tie up between the government and the city’s business elite, especially real estate conglomerates, which are regarded as the bogy men in forcing the prices of rent and housing beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.
The case is also being looked at in the context of the conviction of Tsang’s right hand man in his administration from 2005 to 2007, Rafael Hui Si-yan, who got seven-and-a-half years for receiving payments from the top brass at Sun Hung Kai Properties, Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong and his brother, Raymond Kwok Ping-luen, to act as their eyes and ears in government.
Together, the two cases highlight what is seen as a de facto structural connection between the big names in the real estate sector and the governing elite, especially at a time when the plight of the city’s poorer and ageing classes has become a critical issue.
Although Hong Kong has a relatively good record in the corruption stakes, Malte Kaeding, from the University of Surrey in England, told Verdict, “What is important in the Tsang case is that you can see the close linkage between the ruling elite and the business sector, in particular, the real estate conglomerates. This is why people are focussing on it, because this lies at the heart of the problem.”
The sentencing also comes at a time when the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, is being looked at by the media over an undisclosed payment from a former Australian employer made after he had put his hand up to run for office in 2012.
While currently only an allegation, as Leung is still in office, it forecasts at least a difficult time for him when he steps down in the middle of the year.
Nevertheless, Tsang is still seen as being a man of integrity, as 40 prominent citizens, including political friends and foe alike, wrote character references to the court requesting leniency in sentencing.
These include the former bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, who at the time of Tsang’s ascendency to the top job quipped that being a good Catholic wouldn’t make him a good chief executive!
But it was also Cardinal Zen who paid a pastoral visit to Tsang after he had an asthma attack during his first night in custody and spent two nights in the custodial section of Queen Mary Hospital.
The cardinal has been a regular as a visitor to prisons in the city for many years. He told UCAN that he had offered to say Mass for Tsang in his room, but it was the man in custody, who still faces the prospect of a second trial for bribery that reminded him permission would be required.
Tsang’s wife, Selina Tsang Pou Siu-mei, said the family would appeal the conviction and his defence lawyer, Clare Montgomery, commented that several missing pieces of evidence are obvious weak points in the prosecution.
The courts have been in the news over the past weeks, as not only the former chief executive, but also seven police, who were convicted of beating up a protester at the 2014 Occupy Central Movement and sentenced to two years imprisonment, have been in the headlines.
The police have not taken the sentencing of their comrades lying down and some 33,000 gathered in a closed off arena in silent protest on February 22.
While not disputing the court verdict or defending the actions of their compatriots, they expressed the opinion that because they were under extreme stress at the time, there were mitigating circumstances.
While the pressure the police were placed under at that time cannot be disputed, pressure is the name of the game of life in Hong Kong.
This is reflected in letters to newspapers pointing to what is described as the city’s excessively pressurised life-style as beginning prior to kindergarten and extending well into the sunset years.
If pressure on the police became a mitigating circumstance in sentencing, the question could well be asked if it should not be so in pretty well every crime committed in the region.
Nevertheless, in the same way as Tsang was responsible for the welfare of the people, police are seen as the custodians of the safety of the people.
The judgement of the court may not particularly be about the personal integrity or general background of those involved, but the dent in public trust in two important institutions in society—government and law enforcement.
But for Tsang it may have also been a case of having good friends in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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