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.

Thus, a report by the U.S. Speaker’s Task Force on the Hong Kong Transition in January 2002 said that Hong Kong’s long-term success “depends on preserving the quality and integrity of Hong Kong’s outstanding cadre of civil servants, the rule of law and an independent judiciary.”

But the image of public servants has been badly tainted in recent weeks, first by the former chief secretary, Henry Tang, who brought disrepute to the government when it was discovered that he had illegally constructed a 220-square-meter basement — including such features as a wine cellar, a wine-tasting room, a Japanese-style sauna, a gym and a theater — many times the size of the average Hong Kong person’s home.

Chief Executive Tsang last year had asked all of his principal officials to check their properties for illegal structures, but Tang ignored this instruction. When its existence came to light a few weeks ago, he blamed it on his wife.

Now Hong Kong has been rocked by disclosures of actions by the chief executive himself, who, it turned out, had accepted trips on private jets and luxury yachts from tycoons, at least some of whom have investments in Hong Kong subject to government regulations.

Tsang’s appeal for continued trust in Hong Kong’s institutions is noteworthy. Without such institutions as an independent judiciary and a clean and efficient civil service, Hong Kong would soon become little different from any mainland city.

It is significant that when the chief executive’s misconduct became public, he turned to the independent judiciary for assistance, appointing a five-member panel headed by former Chief Justice Andrew Li to review the government’s code of conduct for top officials, including the chief executive.

Fortunately for Hong Kong, the judiciary remains highly respected, which is why government inquiries are often headed by retired judges. Institutions such as an independent judiciary and a noncorrupt civil service are indispensable and Hong Kong needs to be sure that they continue to be valued — and protected. Thus far, it appears the public understands their importance better than those in the highest echelons of government. The strong reaction to official wrongdoing is a reflection of a politically vigilant public.

The strong reaction within the civil service suggests that it, too, feels betrayed by Tsang, who has 45 years of government experience and should know better than anyone else the need to uphold high ethical standards. Hopefully, the Li panel will come up with appropriate guidelines.

But each person must have his own moral compass, and Tsang’s downfall, coming only months before his retirement, is a great tragedy.

If Hong Kong is to continue to be successful, its senior officials must not simply avoid criminal behavior — they must also set for themselves standards that will be an inspiration to those who serve in the 160,000-strong civil service. So, it is good that the Independent Commission Against Corruption has begun an investigation into the chief executive.

The head of the commission, Timothy Tong, has had to recuse himself from the investigation because, it turns out, he is a golfing buddy of one of the tycoons accused of having bestowed favors on the chief executive. This is another reflection of the multiple links between senior officials and leaders of the business community.

Government officials cannot avoid dealing with tycoons, but they must learn to maintain a distance in their social contacts.

Hong Kong’s reputation for a clean government was hard earned. It will now have to work hard to preserve that reputation. In fact, Hong Kong is an island amid an ocean of corruption in China. The danger signs are blinking now. They must not be ignored.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong.

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