One country, one system in Hong Kong?
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - "One country, two systems", the governing mantra for this city since its 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, was supposed to be a formula for keeping at bay mainland China's culture of corruption. But now that a former head of Hong Kong's once-vaunted anti-graft agency, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), has himself been accused of corruption, the "two systems" are starting to look increasingly alike.
Indeed, the accusations against erstwhile ICAC commissioner Timothy Tong Hin-ming - that he spent hundreds of thousands of
Hong Kong dollars on lavish, boozy banquets for mainland officials while also plying those same officials with "gifts" of appreciation - may have irreparably damaged Hong Kong's reputation as a clean city operating under the rule of law.
Coming on top of other corruption scandals involving both a former chief executive and chief secretary (Hong Kong's top two political positions) as well as members of the city's business elite, revelations of Tong's wining, dining and gift-giving as ICAC chief have analysts worried about a disturbing trend of dubious practices commonplace on the mainland seeping into Hong Kong's culture, which has for decades been prized for its transparency and relative absence of graft.
The ICAC, established in 1974 when the city's police department was a cesspool of bribery and malfeasance, had until recently earned a reputation for unshakeable probity and won international plaudits for the substantial part it played in transforming Hong Kong into a model of efficient, clean governance. Thanks to Tong, that reputation is now in serious doubt.
During Tong's 2007-2012 tenure as ICAC boss, he apparently turned the agency into a welcoming mat for visiting mainland officials who received from him the same sort of over-the-top treatment they have grown accustomed to across the border: lavish banquets, free-flowing mao-tai and more than US$93,000 in complimentary gifts from pens, watches and cameras to, in one case, a carving stone valued at US$515. Two dinners hosted by Tong at the five-star Grand Hyatt Hotel in 2010 have drawn particular attention. The total bill for these two grandiose acts of hospitality: nearly US$10,000.
At one of the banquets, 36 mainland officials - including the prosecutor-general of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, Cao Jianming - took advantage of Tong's generosity, which was fully funded by Hong Kong taxpayers. Besides the multi-course meal, they enjoyed five bottles of mao-tai priced at US$187 per bottle. The second feast, a month later in December 2010, was attended by the deputy governor of Sichuan province, Wei Hong, and 27 other officials. The cost per head for this meal was nearly three times the HK$450 (US$58) maximum allowed under ICAC guidelines.
There was no problem obtaining the extra cash for these bacchanal extravagances, however, as spending above the ICAC limit for entertainment is allowed if approved by the commissioner - and Tong was more than happy to oblige.
The sheer overindulgence of these nights at the Grand Hyatt aside, one has to wonder how much official ICAC business was being conducted as the dishes piled up and the mao-tai went down.
The worry, of course, is that something far more insidious was going on: the buying of favor and loyalty. That worry only deepens with the knowledge that Tong, 63, was appointed as a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top political advisory body, earlier this year.
The ICAC spending record during his time in office also shows that, in addition to being an openhanded host to mainland officials visiting Hong Kong, Tong enjoyed traveling, especially to the mainland, at taxpayers' expense. The agency dished out a total of US$97,625 - or US$19,525 per year - for Tong's official trips outside Hong Kong, most of which (19 of 34) took him to the mainland.
That is three times the annual amount spent on foreign travel by the three ICAC bosses who preceded him.
While Tong claims that the establishment in 2006 of the International Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities, a non-governmental organization with its headquarters in Beijing, necessitated more frequent travel to the mainland for him, that hardly explains a 2008 trip to Sichuan by an ICAC delegation, led by Tong, in the wake of the devastating earthquake that had struck the province.
Critics have asked - especially in light of reports that the delegation spent only one day surveying damage wrought by the earthquake and three days visiting well-known tourist destinations - what such a trip has to do with the graft-busting business of the ICAC. Tong is now the subject of multiple investigations; there is reason to wonder, however, how far any of them will go.
He has appeared before a hearing of the Legislative Council's largely toothless public accounts committee, but he was summoned under the Power and Privileges Ordinance, which means that none of his answers to lawmakers' questions can be used against him in any legal proceedings.
In any case, Tong maintained throughout his testimony to the committee that he had done nothing wrong and that expenses incurred during his tenure were justified by the ongoing business of the ICAC.
Chief executive Leung Chun-ying has responded to the scandal by appointing an independent committee to investigate Tong's unprecedented hospitality as ICAC head while also reviewing the general regulations for official entertainment, but skeptics point out that all four members of the committee are chairmen of advisory boards currently overseeing the sorry state of affairs at the agency. That hardly seems "independent".
The ICAC itself, now headed by Simon Peh Yun-lu, has launched a criminal probe of Tong under the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance, but that also appears to be a potentially incestuous enterprise that could result in a whitewash.
The Tong affair is bad enough news for a city struggling to retain its singular identity nearly 16 years after the handover. It has been preceded by other scandals that also rocked confidence in Hong Kong's system of governance and its business environment.
Fifteen months ago, the ICAC began a criminal investigation into allegations that former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who left office nearly a year ago, accepted favors from Hong Kong tycoons, including hitching rides on their private jets and yachts and wangling a sweetheart deal on a penthouse apartment in Shenzhen. Why, critics wonder, is the ICAC dragging its feet for so long on a case that appears to be fairly simple to resolve?
Did he or didn't he?
Meanwhile, the city is has to face the sensational corruption trial of former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-Yan and the billionaire co-chairmen of the Sun Hung Kai Properties empire, Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong and brother Raymond Kwok Ping-luen. Hui, who served as the city's No 2 politician from 2005 to 2007, stands accused of taking the equivalent of millions of US dollars in bribes and accepting rent-free luxury accommodation from Thomas Kwok; in March, a bribery charge against Raymond Kwok was dropped.
Hui, both Kwok brothers, former Hong Kong Stock Exchange official Francis Kwan Hung-sang and another Sun Hung Kai executive, Thomas Chan Kui-yuen, all stand charged with conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. The trial is expected to begin next year.
Hong Kong's string of scandals continued last week when the top aide to Leung - the current chief executive, who himself has faced an avalanche of criticism for illegal structures discovered on properties he owns - was forced to resign from several public posts after his business collapsed under a cloud of irregular transactions.
High-flying Barry Cheung Chun-yuen ran Leung's successful election campaign for chief executive, headed the Urban Renewal Authority and held seats on the Executive Council and three other advisory committees to the government, but after his Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange - an electronic exchange for commodities futures, started with enthusiastic government support in 2008 - went bust this month, he faces an uncertain future, as does the chief executive he served.
Cheung maintains that he has done nothing wrong, but police have questioned him and arrested three men from the mainland for possessing false bank documents related to the case purporting to be worth hundreds of millions of US dollars; more revelations are expected.
No one mentioned above has been convicted of any wrongdoing, but allegations continue to mount and the perception of Hong Kong as clean city adhering to the rule of law hangs in the balance.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)