Two Cases Spell Out Demise of Law in Hong Kong

The rule of law in Hong Kong, and the notion of its being an international city, appear in danger of fraying at the seams over two well-publicized legal cases.

On Feb. 17, a judge convicted seven policemen, including a Chief Inspector and a Senior Inspector, of the vicious kicking and beating of a protestor during the 2014 Occupy movement. The incident occurred in the open and was clearly captured on camera, the footage appearing on television and mobile screens around the world.

But instead of apologizing to the public for letting down the reputation of the police force, the Police Commissioner, the territory’s top police official, chose to sympathize with the wrongdoers. He was quoted saying “I can totally understand why my colleagues are disappointed and frustrated,” approving a campaign to raise money for the convicted men.

Criticism of the two-year sentence handed to officers, and the junior ones who were presumably simply following the example of the Chief Inspector, might be seen to be very reasonable. But police and reaction by other pro-government groups went far beyond reasoned criticism and in some cases was virulently racist.

It so happened that the District Court judge hearing the case was British. That led to numerous racial slurs from pro-Beijing groups in Hong Kong and even an offer on the mainland social platform Weibo by the son of a PLA general of “10,000 yuan to the one who would beat up British ‘judge,’ David Dutton.”

At least in Hong Kong the Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung called for people to be rational and to respect the legal process. But the incident provided pro-Beijing forces with a rallying point for those – like the Communist Party of China – who reject the notion that government officials and decisions are subject to an independent judicial system. The judge’s white skin also enabled the pro-Beijing forces to raise the specter of colonialism and the need to abolish the relics of British rule.

By coincidence, the judgment on the policemen came the same day as a jury delivered its verdict on charges of corruption and misconduct in public office brought against former Hong Kong Chief Executive, the bowtie-wearing Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

He was found guilty of one charge of misconduct, a second one was dismissed and the jury could not agree on the corruption charge. The case is probably not over yet as the prosecution will likely press for a re-trial of the corruption charge, but the result so far has generally been viewed as a fair result after a fair trial and a credit to the system.

What has not been so edifying however has been some of the evidence given by a senior investigator of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). He admitted that the ICAC had not attempted to interview the head of the Bank of East Asia and former Executive Councillor and Legislator David Li Kwok-po despite the fact he was alleged to have made a HK$300,000 cash payment to Tsang’s wife. The reason: the ICAC believed Li would have been uncooperative.

This raised the question: was Li being shielded, or was this a tactical ploy by the ICAC? Evidence for the former comes from the ICAC’s testimony that it had faced months of obstruction by Bank of East Asia (BEA) officials, supported by numerous lawyers, in its attempt to trace payments to Tsang. These efforts must have been known to the two other executive directors of the BEA, Li’s son’s Brian Li Man-kiu and Adrian Li Man-bun. It is also reasonable to assume that they would have been known to David Li’s brother Arthur Li Kwok-cheung who is deputy chairman of BEA.

Arthur Li himself is an Executive Councillor and, since his controversial appointment last year, chairman of the Council of the University of Hong Kong. A hardline exponent of government policies, he has been bitterly criticized by the university’s staff and students.

This Li family has long been one of Hong Kong’s most prominent, represented for decades at the highest levels of business, government and the legal profession. David Li had to resign from the Executive Council in on account of a scandal involving insider trading in the shares of Dow Jones, the US media company of which he was a non-executive director, but has otherwise remained prominent.

His son Adrian is listed among the backers of Carrie Lam, Beijing’s preferred candidate to be next Chief Executive of Hong Kong, along with Ronald Arculli, a former Executive Councillor, chairman of HK Exchanges and Clearing and of the Jockey Club and legislator representing property developers. David and Arthur Li and Arculli were also shareholders of a company, Digital Broadcasting, whose founder’s relationship with Tsang over a broadcasting license was a key issue in Tsang’s trial.

These linkages indicate how intertwined are the names in the small circle of power holders in Hong Kong. It is up to the jury of the public to figure whether this influenced the manner in which the ICAC pursued the case against Tsang. The anti-graft body’s reputation had already been severely damaged. Firstly by a gifts and expenses scandal involving a former head; then by the appointment of Maria Tam, an aging insider who made an instant conversion from colonial to pro-Beijing lackey, as head of its Operations Review Committee, which has the power to halt investigations.

Then, last year, by the sudden sacking of the head of investigations, Rebecca Li Bo-lan. That action went unexplained but has been linked to her decision to pursue investigation into current Chief Executive C.Y. Leung’s HK$50 million payoff by Australian property company UGL around the time he became a candidate for Hong Kong’s top job.

Given this background, there is a widespread sense that, guilty or not, there is more politics than principle in the prosecution of Tsang.