Dead Men Walking

It pains me to even think it, let alone to write the words, but our Chief Executive Donald Tsang has joined the ranks of Dead Men Walking.

Revelations that he has consorted with wealthy businessmen, by themselves, mean nothing. We expect the head of our government to mix with a wide variety of people and the world being the way it is many of those who squeeze into his diary are likely to be persons of influence. It would be surprising if it were otherwise.

But the reports that the rendezvous included lifts in private jets and luxury yachts (some at economy class prices) owned by persons with whom the government engages in commercially sensitive dealings are a real shock.

And the edge has surely been taken off what should have been a well earned retirement with the controversy over the location, ownership and rent of the penthouse flat in Shenzhen.

Let us be clear about one thing: if any civil servant had conducted himself as Mr Tsang has admitted he did, he would immediately be prosecuted under Section 3 of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance for accepting an advantage without the general or special permission of the Chief Executive. His inevitable conviction would be followed by dismissal and loss of pension.

What happens next is in one sense extremely important, but on another level is irrelevant. The mere fact that the Independent Commission Against Corruption had no alternative but to formally launch an investigation is disgrace enough.

Mr Tsang may escape prosecution and impeachment, but he has lost forever the mantle of "local boy made good" that hitherto rested comfortably on his shoulders.

It is a miserable end to a long and generally meritorious career.

Joining Mr Tsang in this sad procession of the mighty fallen is former Chief Secretary and CE candidate Henry Tang.

Confessions of multiple extramarital affairs stretching over many years would have finished the political career of an office seeker in just about any other jurisdiction, with the possible exceptions of France and Italy. But as further evidence that Hong Kong is indeed a special place, Mr Tang seemed set to ride out the storm, albeit after a serious loss of public support as measured by opinion polls.

Just when it seemed the ship of his candidacy might survive and sail on, it was torpedoed by revelations about a very large unlawful basement under his home in Kowloon Tong. Professional opinion is unanimous, and common sense requires, that the structure was included as part of the original construction, and indeed there are photographs in circulation of the building works in progress that confirm it.

It can only be a matter of time before the Buildings Department report makes its way to the Justice Department, possibly via the police. Prosecution of the parties involved is inevitable: not to do so would imply abandonment of the rule of law.

The only question left outstanding is whether LegCo and the media will succeed in scoring a hat trick by dragging down the other leading CE candidate C Y Leung because of his involvement in the design competition for West Kowloon.

The decision by LegCo to invoke the Powers and Privileges machinery to investigate the case was taken after formation of a curious coalition comprising democrats and Tang supporters out for revenge.

They may get more than they bargained for.

Mr Leung has insisted that he has done nothing wrong and that full disclosure of all the facts will prove his innocence. Time will tell. He has called on the government to make all the documents concerned with the case public, an appeal the administration has so far resisted.

Mr Leung has publically welcomed the LegCo enquiry, though he would probably rather have spent the time putting together his first cabinet and Policy Address instead of preparing to give evidence. To an extent then, he will view the exercise as an unwelcome distraction.

But what will Beijing make of all this? Having seen the incumbent fall from grace, and his carefully groomed successor effectively disqualify himself, they would surely have expected their loyalists to rally round the only candidate left in the field with a smidgen of credibility. The fact that some of them have chosen not to do so will surely bring a reckoning of its own.

And we may not have to wait long to see what it is. There are going to be further political casualties – on both sides of the boundary.