Feet Of Clay

The best person to work for in the Hong Kong administration during the 1990s was undoubtedly Donald Tsang. As Secretary for the Treasury, and then Financial Secretary, he was an inspiration, even – as former chief secretary Carrie Lam put it recently – a "role model".

Where some of his peers looked only to immediate events and issues, Tsang looked over the horizon to plot the best way forward for Hong Kong 10 or even 20 years ahead.

His decision making process was very inclusive, and it wasn’t just lip service, he really meant it. "I’m going to fire all the men in this bureau," he said once. "Only the women stand up to me and argue back." It was a requirement that every idea or policy proposal – including his own – be subject to rigorous scrutiny and exhaustively examined before adoption. Once agreed, he expected everyone to defend the company position.

He always put Hong Kong’s interests first, even if it meant putting his own career prospects at risk. For example, in discussions with the British government over implementation of the defence costs agreement, it was well understood that certain officers who pursued Hong Kong’s position in a manner deemed too aggressive would be "spoken to". The garrison would complain to the Ministry of Defence in London, the Ministry would complain to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, someone senior in the FCO would then telephone the Governor of the time and the word would come down from on high to ease up. Tsang was having none of it. He set a reasonable ceiling figure on the budget for a garrison that was in the process of withdrawing, and fought tooth and nail to hold the line. Altogether we slashed 100 million pounds from the British bill.

Similarly with the discussion over the budget during the transitional year of 1997-98. The British position was that Beijing had no part to play in Hong Kong affairs before the formal handover on 1 July. From Hong Kong’s perspective, however, it was essential to preserve the concept of a through train running smoothly. That meant sticking with 12 month financial years running from April to March, rather than having a 15 month one for the final period of British administration followed by a separate nine month one (or a 12 month one with change of financial year start date.) A financial budget covering a financial year under both sovereign powers’ administration required consultation with the Chinese side starting from April 1996 when planning for the 1997 budget would begin. Moreover, since the Hong Kong system was so different from the mainland one, it would be better if the Chinese side were permitted to observe the preparations for the 1996 budget, starting from April 1995. That way they would have confidence in the integrity of the Hong Kong process. The FCO was adamantly opposed and then governor Chris Patten reluctant, but Tsang stood his ground: a cooperative arrangement was best for Hong Kong and the logic of his position eventually won the day albeit after a tough battle.

There were struggles with other parties too. The Chinese side was very suspicious about penultimate governor David Wilson’s "Rose Garden" projects covering the new airport and especially the airport express. Clearly there was a suspicion that their construction was a way to siphon off the reserves and benefit UK companies. Long sessions were held wherein the mainland leader would harangue the Hong Kong delegates and demand tighter cost control and more information. Tsang sat through them all with impeccable courtesy and patience. We got the funding approved.

Next up came the negotiations with the Walt Disney company which ultimately resulted in the construction of Hong Kong Disneyland. Two issues in particular threatened to make agreement impossible, but Tsang kept his eye firmly on the ball, exhibited a combination of firmness and flexibility so a fair deal could be struck.

Through it all, at no time did officers in the front line have the slightest concern about whether their leader would abandon them if the politics got rough. Where other officials gave the impression they might run away at the first sound of gunfire, you just knew that Tsang had your back.

It is apparent from the many letters of support submitted to the court last week that others in the administration had similar experiences with Tsang and he had performed much excellent service.

All of which makes his fall from grace that much harder to understand. When word of the Shenzhen penthouse first began to leak out, one’s first reaction was that it must be a mistake, or a misunderstanding. But as more facts emerged, one’s sense of horror grew. How could the cleverest official I ever worked with stumble over a simple matter like declaring an obvious interest?

How can any of us, who respected and loved him so much as so many did, cope with this tragedy? Many tears were shed last week, and not only by Donald and his immediate family.