Chief Executive Donald Tsang, chastened by the disclosure that he had accepted favors from Hong Kong and mainland tycoons, was on the verge of tears when he appeared March 1 before the Legislative Council and pleaded: "No matter whether you still trust me or not, don't lose faith in Hong Kong's institutions."

But faith in Hong Kong's institutions cannot be created through admonishments. Just like the chief executive's reputation, trust in the territory's institutions can be lost in the blink of an eye.

His appeal went to the heart of the matter. Hong Kong's success before and after its return to China in 1997 is generally attributed to certain "pillars" of the former British colony, such as an independent judiciary, the free flow of information, a level playing field for business and the high quality of its civil service.