The sentencing of former Hong Kong chief secretary Rafael Hui to seven and a half years' imprisonment for corruption sent a strong message that rule of law in the former British colony is still intact, analysts said.
Hui, 66, was sentenced by a Hong Kong court alongside property tycoon Thomas Kwok, 65, who received a five-year jail term.
The trial has shocked Hong Kong, which scores highly on international measures of clean and transparent government, sparking renewed fears of behind-the-scenes links between government and corporate interests.
Kwok, who once headed Hong Kong’s biggest property company, Sun Hung Kai, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office after graft investigators unearthed payments he made to Hui using a complicated system of middlemen.
Macrae said he had taken a year off the maximum for Kwok, taking into account his otherwise good character.
Hong Kong, which has had an independent and effective graft-busting agency for more than three decades, was in 15th place on a global index by corruption watchdog Transparency International last year.
Judge Andrew Macrae told the court that the sentences were designed to send a strong message.
"To know that the former number two in government had received bribes must be a deep disappointment to many people in Hong Kong," Macrae said.
"It is vitally important in these times that the Hong Kong government and business community remain—and are seen to remain—corruption-free, particularly when the mainland (China) is taking obvious and positive steps to eradicate the cancer of corruption in their own jurisdiction."
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Wu Yisan said the case showed that the semiautonomous Chinese city still functions under the rule of law and judicial independence.
"Hui was shown no favor because he was once a high-ranking official, nor was Kwok shown any mercy because he is a big businessman," Wu said.
"Hong Kong is still a society ruled by law, and its judiciary is still independent," Wu told RFA. "We should recognize this as a positive."
He said the case would fuel optimism that Hong Kong, which recently saw the end of more than two months of a pro-democracy movement that occupied major highways and intersections in the city in a bid to win fully democratic elections in 2017.
Many of those who attended the protests said they were fighting to maintain the territory's traditional freedoms and high degree of autonomy promised under the terms of its 1997 handover to Beijing.
"We want the 'one country, two systems' formula to continue in Hong Kong," Wu said. "We want to preserve our rule of law, our freedom of speech and opinion about officials, and to exercise supervision over the government."
But he said the case has also sparked fears that a culture of rampant official corruption is finding its way across the internal border from mainland China, where the ruling Chinese Communist Party has vowed to pursue both high-ranking "tigers" and low-ranking "flies" in a campaign launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013.
Prosecutors said Hui had enjoyed a standard of living that far outstripped his apparent means on a government salary.
Hui's lavish gifts worth some HK$7 million to his Shanghai mistress will sound all-too-familiar to Hong Kong residents accustomed to hearing similar tales from across the border.
Hui, the most senior official to be found guilty of corruption in Hong Kong's history, bought properties and made investments on his mistress' behalf, as well as showered her with designer bags, watches and other items, local media reports said.
Civic Party chairman and veteran barrister Alan Leong said the case had confirmed what many Hong Kong people have suspected for some time—that government and business interests are becoming increasingly intertwined.
"The authorities should take the opportunity to plug some of the loopholes exposed by [this] case," Leong said, citing a report from several years ago warning that the government wasn't doing enough to prevent corruption.
He said many are now asking questions about embattled chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who has admitted receiving a U.S. $6.5 million payout from an Australian company, but says he wasn't obliged to declare it under existing rules.
"If the second highest-ranking official in the [Hong Kong] government can be in bed with big business to such an extent, then of course we must wonder about the highest-ranking official, because he has even more power and more opportunity for ties with big business," Leong said.
Meanwhile, political analyst Sonny Lo, of the Hong Kong Institute of Education told Agence France-Presse: "Members of the public have had a perception of business-government collusion for some time."
He added, "This case proves that such public perception has some validity."
Sun Hung Kai former director Thomas Chan and Francis Kwan, the former non-executive director of investment firm New Environmental Energy Holdings were also found guilty on two charges linked to Kwok's payments to Hui.
Chan was sentenced to six years while Francis Kwan was given five years.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service and Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.