By The Economist
It’s a long way down from the 102nd floor of the International Commerce Centre in Hong Kong, where Analects once enjoyed a really high tea (see picture). But the dizziness you feel looking out of the window cannot compare with the vertiginous sensation the building’s owners, Sun Hung Kai Properties, must now be feeling. Their co-chairmen, Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong and Raymond Kwok Ping-luen were arrested on March 29th by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) under the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance. So too was a former head of Hong Kong’s civil service, Rafael Hui. The arrests are widely seen as among the most sensational in the commission’s 38-year history.
The ICAC is, as usual, saying extremely little about the case, which involves one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest families. Sun Hung Kai’s buildings include the three tallest in Hong Kong. But the investigation will generate enormous media interest. The Kwok family has long been a topic of much gossip in the territory because of feuding among its members. In addition there have been growing concerns in Hong Kong about the cosiness of relations between its leaders and business tycoons. Last month the ICAC launched an investigation into the behaviour of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Donald Tsang, because of hospitality he had received from wealthy businesspeople. This is the first action ever taken by the ICAC involving someone of his paramount rank. Mr Tsang denied breaking rules but apologised for failing to live up to public expectations.
Public disquiet about the tycoons’ influence was evident during the recent competition to replace Mr Tsang, who completes his term of office at the end of June. A former civil-service chief, Henry Tang, was at one time thought to be China’s favourite for the job (an endorsement that carries enormous weight among the fewer than 1,200 members of the election committee). But public opinion turned against him, partly because of his tycoon background, forcing China to switch sides to Leung Chun-ying, a man with a more populist reputation who is regarded with some suspicion by the tycoons (see this analysis by Reuters of the political role of Hong Kong’s rich).
Online commentators in the rest of China are keenly watching the ICAC’s moves. For all the Hong Kong public’s worries about corruption, their counterparts elsewhere in the country have a good deal more to complain about. Even Chinese officials sometimes speak admiringly of the ICAC’s ability to operate without political interference and of Hong Kong officialdom’s relatively clean conduct. But the Communist Party has been reluctant to give anti-corruption institutions the same independent powers as the ICAC for fear of weakening the party’s authority and embarrassing its leaders. As we reported in Banyan this week, Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s recently deposed party chief, is alleged by party officials to have tried blocking a corruption investigation involving his family. It is widely believed, however, that the accusations being levelled against Mr Bo are themselves motivated as much if not more by political rivalry than by any wrongdoing.
At an annual meeting of anti-corruption officials on March 26th, China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, had little progress to point to. He said there were still frequent corruption cases “in departments that possess great power and in areas where the management of funds is centralised”. This was in spite of investigations last year into 2,524 officials at or above the rank of county leader, including seven minister-level officials (compared with 2,723 such officials investigated in 2010, including six of ministerial rank). “Corruption is the most crucial threat to the ruling party”, he said, repeating a well-worn line.
Some of China’s bolder media have dared to suggest the obvious. “If you think that China’s problem can be solved by holding a meeting and issuing a directive, you are cheating yourself and cheating others”, said a commentary in Shenzhen Evening News (here, in Chinese), a newspaper in the Chinese city that borders on Hong Kong. It said that among the many “simple” solutions would be to set up an ICAC. Shangdu.com, a web portal in the central province of Henan, published a commentary arguing much the same. It said Hong Kong’s ICAC enjoyed high public approval because it operated according to procedures over which the public had oversight. “Citizens all have the right to make those who violate the procedures, or fail to uphold them properly, pay the price”, it said (here, in Chinese).
Hong Kong’s citizens may sometimes moan that their democratic rights are stifled, but seen from the rest of China the territory remains a paragon of the rule of law.