Hong Kong leader denies bribery over yacht trip

HONG KONG - Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang on Wednesday denied he had breached bribery laws after he admitted taking a luxury yacht trip offered by a tycoon during a private visit to the gambling hub of Macau.

Tsang, whose term is due to expire in June, faced accusations of bribery and conflict of interest after local media published pictures of him and his wife spending a weekend on the triple-deck luxury boat with a few tycoons last week.

Tsang said he was "saddened" by the claims, after confessing that he had accepted the offer but said he had paid for the expense of getting there at "market price".

"I am saddened by the reports which questioned my integrity and suggested there is a collusion between the government and businessmen," Tsang told public broadcaster RTHK, which said he called the station to offer an explanation.

The chief executive - whose wife is from Macau - said he was in the gaming hub, which is about an hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, for a private visit including tomb-sweeping and denied there was luxurious treatment on the yacht.

"I had a breakfast, consisted of fruits, porridge and noodle. I was not treated to any entertainment show, the only entertainment I had was to watch TV news, there was no karaoke, gambling or performances," he said.

He also revealed he accepted another invite for a private helicopter ride to Thailand's popular resort island of Phuket during a vacation earlier this month, but said he had paid for it. He did not reveal how much.

"I never thought of any personal gains," said Tsang, a career civil servant known for his colourful bow ties.

His explanation failed to impress lawmakers who have been urging the government to do more to close Hong Kong's yawning wealth gap between rich and poor.

"I think his action has crossed the line, he has gone against the image of a chief executive who should be clean and impartial," pro-democracy lawmaker Ronny Tong said.

Pro-establishment Liberal Party chairwoman Miriam Lau said: "If it's proven that there's a huge difference between what he paid and the treatment he received, it would be inappropriate."

Under Hong Kong's tough anti-bribery laws, the chief executive is barred from any acts of "solicitation and acceptance of advantage and possession of unexplained property". He must declare all gifts valued over HK$400 (S$65).

Even so many Hong Kongers complain that their rulers are too close to the small circle of business and property tycoons who dominate the southern banking hub's economy.

In a major policy address in October, Tsang pledged to make closing Hong Kong's wealth gap one of the priorities of his final months in office.