The Trouble with Hong Kong’s Chief Executives

On January 14, the trial of Sir Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s former chief executive who served from 2005 to 2012, was set for January 3 of 2017. This past December, Tsang pleaded not guilty to two counts of misconduct in public office, charges on which he was indicted in October. At issue is an apartment Tsang rented in the Chinese border city of Shenzhen from Bill Wong Chor-bau, a shareholder of the Digital Broadcasting Corporation (DBC), Hong Kong’s biggest broadcaster. At the time of the lease, DBC’s Hong Kong broadcasting license was pending before Tsang’s administration. Tsang did not reveal his connection at the time, but speaking before the Legislative Council in 2012, he admitted that he had leased the flat and that it was an error in judgment. While Tsang’s prosecution could suggest that no one, not even the city’s highest official, is above the law, it has instead become further evidence of the failure of the office of Hong Kong’s chief executive. Caught between Hong Kong and the central government in Beijing, successive executives seem unable to maintain the confidence of either.

Hong Kong reverted to mainland Chinese rule in 1997, and—like British colonial Governors—its chief executive serves the local population while answering to a distant but powerful central government. Over the past several years, the tension between these two roles has been brought to the fore. How should the chief executive be elected or chosen? How can Hong Kong maintain its autonomy from Beijing? Specific to the Tsang case, no statute covers his actions. He is being prosecuted for common law crimes. On November 10, Hong Kong’s semi-elected Legislative Council rejected an extension of the anti-corruption law to cover the chief executive’s office in situations like Tsang’s. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) reports directly to the chief executive.

The chief executive’s dual role lies at the heart of bitter debates that sparked the Occupy Central street protests from September to December of 2014. In what was also known as the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong people took to the streets to demand direct and democratic election of their leader. Though the streets were cleared after 79 days, debates continue—some existential, such as whether Hong Kong has a separation of powers, some trivial, such as whether the Hong Kong Post should “decolonize” old postboxes by removing their royal insignia.



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In the post-Umbrella environment, the Tsang case has caused a maelstrom in the Hong Kong media. It follows on the heels of the high-profile trial and conviction of former Chief Secretary Rafael Hui in 2014, as well as two legislative investigations into corruption on the part of a former head of the ICAC itself. Even the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying (also known as C.Y. Leung), has come under scrutiny for alleged payments received from an Australian company in 2014. Although Hong Kong politics are separate from mainland Chinese politics, the Tsang case nonetheless prompted speculation among Hong Kong’s democrats of direct Beijing interference because of how long the case remained in legal limbo. Prior to the October indictment, Hong Kong’s former Director of Public Prosecutions, Granville Cross, was interviewed in Ming Pao. Three years after Tsang’s public confession, he asked, why had there still been no resolution to the case?

When Tsang was finally indicted in October, the Hong Kong Department of Justice stated that the choice to prosecute Tsang was “a decision made independently in the due discharge of the [Department of Justice]’s constitutional duty” and was “free from any interference.” As the subsequent response demonstrates, this initial denial failed to allay suspicions. Pro-democracy editorial writers contended that the timing of the prosecution was quite convenient for the beleaguered Leung. They claim that he is using Donald Tsang to distract from his own corruption allegations as well as from a litany of other issues. These editorialists point out that the Tsang indictment followed closely on the heels of a controversy over appointments at Hong Kong University (of which the chief executive is the titular head) and the prosecution of Occupy Central protestors, which has also been delayed. Writers for one media outlet, EJ Insight, the online English-language version of the well-regarded Hong Kong Economic Journal, repeated speculation that if Leung stands for chief executive again in March 2017 he could use the case against those of his political rivals who had formerly worked for Tsang.

Hong Kong’s continued anti-corruption travails, especially those related to the chief executive’s office, present two possible conclusions, neither reassuring to the public in Hong Kong. If, as some speculation has suggested, the case signals Beijing’s ever-strengthening hand in Hong Kong politics, then Tsang’s prosecution is just another stumble down the slope of Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy.

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Since Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a crackdown on corruption in 2013, the mainland has seen a surge in corruption cases, from the indictment of bureaucrats at the lowest levels to high-ranking officials like former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang. Some of these cases are politically motivated, and all must go through Communist Party channels; the anti-corruption campaigns are implemented by the disciplinary organ of the Communist Party, the cases require Party approval to be investigated, and the prosecutions unfold as Party rectification campaigns. If the Tsang case represents the mainlandification of Hong Kong, then the very autonomy of institutions like the ICAC and Department of Justice is in question, a concern that has grown more acute in recent years.



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On the other hand, if Leung and the Department of Justice are correct that there is no interference in Hong Kong’s rule of law, it is scarcely more palatable to the Hong Kong people, who cannot point with satisfaction to any chief executive since Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. Tsang’s predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, resigned in 2005, two years after hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest his failed attempt to implement wide-ranging national security legislation. Leung himself is unpopular; according to Hong Kong University’s most recent poll, his approval rating stands at 38.7 percent—not the lowest it’s been, but lower than his initial ratings and low among Hong Kong chief executives. “C.Y. Leung, step down!” has been a slogan at almost every protest since he has taken office. Tsang’s charges underscore the fact that Hong Kong people can neither vote directly for their own chief executive, nor remove him if he is corrupt.

In the wake of Tsang’s indictment in October, Leung was cited in the pages of the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reiterating Tsang’s contributions to Hong Kong government service, expressing his faith in Hong Kong as a society with rule of law, and suggesting that any commentary or speculation would negatively affect the trial. His words, too little and too late for either Tsang’s supporters or his detractors, give little reason for them to trust this chief executive more than the last. The protests of previous years demonstrate to Beijing that the chief executive cannot maintain order, while the corruption cases remind Hong Kongers that the office does not answer to its population. In answering to two masters, the chief executive has found legitimacy in neither.