Every time Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, dressed in his signature bow tie, stepped into the High Court in Admiralty over the past two months, it wasn’t just the former chief executive staring at charges of bribery and misconduct in public office. Hong Kong’s long-established reputation for clean governance and the rule of law was standing right next to him.

Following last week’s verdict, handed down by a jury of eight women and one man, both parties were looking decidedly battered and grim. In an 8-1 decision, Tsang was found guilty on one of the two charges against him for misconduct in public office; the jury was unable to reach a verdict on a third charge of accepting an advantage as chief executive.

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Former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang looks on as he walks towards his car from the High Court after the jury found him guilty of misconduct in his high-profile corruption trial, in Hong Kong on February 17, 2017. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

Tsang, the first chief executive to be convicted in a criminal trial, now faces a maximum sentence of seven years in jail.

The verdict, while it will no doubt be appealed, marks a new personal low for Tsang, 72, in a corruption saga that has dogged him since 2012, his final year in office, and turned what should be his golden years of retirement into a nightmare of accusation and humiliation. The verdict also splashes the biggest post-handover stain yet on Hong Kong’s wavering claim to be an exception to the commonplace corruption that is the rule in places both high and low throughout the rest of China.

It’s been a long, hard fall for the former leader and for the city that he served as a civil servant and politician for 45 years.

The picture was dramatically different back in 2005 when a grinning, self-assured Tsang took the reins of power from the city’s first post-handover leader, the deeply unpopular Tung Chee-hwa, who had resigned citing “health problems” before his second term ended. Tung’s health appeared just fine, however—and indeed he has since gone on to live a remarkably active public life—but his administration had sunk into a mire of failed initiatives and general ineptitude and it is widely presumed that the powers that be in Beijing simply gave him the heave-ho.

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Tung Chee-hwa. File Photo: Stand News.

At that point, the younger, super-competent Tsang—who, following a long and successful climb up Hong Kong’s civil-service ladder, had served ably as financial secretary for Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten, and during the Tung administration before being appointed chief secretary—appeared to be exactly the sort of leader Hong Kong needed. Clearly, he thought so, as demonstrated by the undisguised elation he brought to his new job.

Tsang entered office on a wave of goodwill and hope. The hapless Tung was gone; now the city could thrive again.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon was brief. Both the chief executive and his rapidly dwindling band of admirers soon realised that the job was a lot tougher than it looked. Balancing the central government’s blueprint for suppression and control with the hopes and dreams of Hong Kong’s population of more than seven million proved an impossible task; Tsang’s popularity ratings sank, just like those of his predecessor. (The fate of his successor, Leung Chun-ying, has proved different only in that Leung has been unpopular from start to finish of his five-year term.)

And then came Tsang’s ignominious end as CE, which was even worse than Tung’s. True, unlike Tung, Tsang was able to lurch and stumble to the finish line of his term, but he left office under a corruption cloud that has forever tarnished his legacy and wounded his psyche.

Leung Chun-ying (left) and Donald Tsang (right)
Leung Chun-ying (left) and Donald Tsang (right). File Photo: Gov HK and HKFP.

The man who was once a vigorous symbol of Hong Kong’s can-do spirit and hope for better governance and a brighter future is now a figure of humiliation representing the city’s ongoing decline.

It’s a sad spectacle to behold. Tsang was charged with accepting an unlawful advantage from tycoon Bill Wong Cho-bau, who gave the chief executive a special rental arrangement on a three-storey penthouse that he owned in Shenzhen which the prosecution alleged came in exchange for approval of a digital broadcasting license for his company, Wave Media, later renamed Digital Broadcasting Corp.

Tsang was also charged with recommending interior designer Barrie Ho Chow-lai for nomination under the city’s honours and awards system while failing to disclose that he had hired Ho to design the Shenzhen penthouse.

The misconduct conviction was related to the allegations involving Wong, and Tsang now faces the prospect of joining his deputy, former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan, in a jail-yard tandem once considered unthinkable in “clean” Hong Kong. Hui was jailed two years ago for accepting nearly HK$20 million in bribes from Sun Hung Kai chairman Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong and two middlemen— reportedly to serve as the property giant’s “eyes and ears” in the government—during his tenure as chief secretary.

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File photo: Stanley Leung/HKFP.

Of course, such a convicted high-level corruption duo delivers a serious blow to the city’s reputation as a bastion of the rule of law in a country, China, still riddled with graft and a region, Asia, where poor governance and malfeasance are the norm.

In the final analysis, however, Hong Kong governance still looks pretty good in comparison to, say, places like Malaysia, where the prime minister, Najib Razak, has allegedly used the country’s sovereign wealth fund as his own private piggybank to the tune of several hundred million US dollars. That makes the charges surrounding Tsang’s Shenzhen penthouse look like peanuts.

Tsang, moreover, was prosecuted for his alleged crimes. That’s not happening in the case of Najib or most of the other shady political leaders across the region, with democratic South Korea, where President Park Geun-hye’s powers and duties have been suspended during her impeachment trial, currently standing as a sensational exception.

Indeed, the people of Hong Kong might even be willing to allow Tsang that penthouse, with all of its allegedly cost-free refurbishments, if he and his fellow chief executives had not struck a far more damaging and sinister bargain that—year by year, piece by piece—has seen the special freedoms granted this city under the Basic Law relentlessly dented and chipped away by the central government.

One by one, chief executives have scraped and bowed as China’s liaison office became the true power centre in the city. And, one by one, most of the city’s major media outlets have also succumbed, via self-censorship, to Beijing’s influence.

Hong Kong people are much more upset about that grand giveaway than by any alleged exchange of favours between Tsang and his landlord and interior decorator.

“One country, two systems” was once a solution. Now it’s the problem.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.