24 October 2016
Wolves at the door? CY Leung's  government is denying the case against Donald Tsang (inset) is politically motivated.  Photo: internet, HKEJ
Wolves at the door? CY Leung's government is denying the case against Donald Tsang (inset) is politically motivated. Photo: internet, HKEJ

Why Sir Donald was thrown to the wolves

It is becoming increasingly easy to understand the motives of our government officials. Just observe how many times they deny or even preemptively deny something and you will know that reality lies in the opposite of their denials.

Following this logic we can draw a conclusion from statements made by both the Chief Executive and his hapless Secretary for Justice repeatedly denying that there were any political factors involved in the decision to prosecute the city’s former top leader, Sir Donald Tsang.

We have also heard, going back to the days when Tsang was in office, that politics played no part in the decision not to prosecute the former Sing Tao publisher Sally Aw for offenses in which connected parties were found guilty.

More recently, we have been assured that politics has nothing to do with the failure to prosecute seven police officers seen on video assaulting an Umbrella Movement protestor, while politics also played no part in the recent initiation of prosecutions of protestors nearly one year after the Occupy campaign ended.

It is, of course, quite possible that all these acutely political matters are only known to the vast majority of Hong Kong people but somehow unknown to the people who run the HKSAR government. While we’ve yet to see pigs flying, let’s assume that what is obvious, is indeed obvious.

Yet the case of Tsang is somewhat odd. Recent indications suggested that after an extraordinary delay of three years in deciding whether he had a case to answer, the former chief executive was given to understand that he would be let off any charges and thus could resume some timid public appearances at state functions.

It appeared that the people who decide these things, and that most definitely does not include anyone sitting in Tamar, must have concluded that prosecuting their hand-picked head of government, hot on the heals of sending his number two to jail, does not make the system look too good.

Moreover Sir Donald, the quintessential civil servant, still had many establishment friends who strongly urged that his long years in service should be taken into consideration and leniency exercised.

However, and very likely at the last moment, another view started to emerge from the Chief Executive’s office — I stress this is surmise but surmise based on an otherwise inexplicable outcome.

Sitting in that office is a deeply unpopular CY Leung, who, among other things, is constantly being accused of disdain for Hong Kong institutions, notably the rule of law, he has only himself to blame for this as in his most recent outburst he affirmed the belief that he was somehow above the law.

Leung remains keen to serve a second term as CE but even he knows that something has to be done to improve his image. The Tsang case, at least in CY’s eyes, proved a perfect opportunity to do just this. It gave him a chance not just to say that he really did believe in the rule of law but also to demonstrate his claim that the system was working as even a former top leader could be put on trial.

The fact that this would mean throwing his predecessor to the wolves is unlikely to be giving Leung sleepless nights. He was never close to Tsang and is as aware as his masters in Beijing that the British knight had only been put in office as the least bad of many bad options in the wake of Tung Chee-hwa’s disastrous tenure as chief executive.

The fact that the then Tsang scrambled to obtain an imperial knighthood in the dying days of colonial rule and that he had spent most of his working life faithfully serving the Brits was not forgotten but filed away as pertinent information. Thus if any sacrifice was to be made, Sir Donald would be an easy option.

There is another factor here, which is that CY has a deep distrust of the British-era senior civil servants he inherited in his administration. He finds them clinging far too closely to each other and believes that they are insufficiently compliant.

He is also said to think that they were far more loyal to Sir Donald, “one of their own”, than they are to him. So here was another motive for delivering a blow to this coterie. Even Carrie Lam, his number two, who has served CY with a loyalty he barely deserves, could hardly contain her despair.

It cannot have been that hard to get the bosses in Beijing to change their minds about prosecuting Sir Donald because they have always had reservations about him and anyway CY Leung’s arguments about the advantages of a prosecution evidently struck a cord, not least because it fits in neatly with its recent “decolonization” campaign.

It still remains to be seen whether the prosecution will be successful. Thankfully, the judiciary has not been suborned to the extent that the outcome of trials of this kind are as predictable as they are on the mainland and in Singapore — CY’s favored model for a re-born Hong Kong judicial system, i.e. one that retains the form of rule of law but without the substance.

Most legal experts seem to believe that Tsang has a case to answer but we have yet to see all the evidence.

Meanwhile, despite widely publicized allegations of bribery, Sir Donald will not be prosecuted on these grounds because the bribery ordinance specifically excludes the chief executive from its purview.

Understandably this exclusion is now being questioned, even by the ultra-loyalist former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung, but CY Leung shows no great enthusiasm for this reform. Perhaps at the back of his mind is the small matter of a HK$50 million scandal emanating from his dealings with the Australian company UGL. But that’s a whole other story.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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