Graft-Busters’ Dinner Plans Touch a Nerve in Anxious Hong Kong

  • Investigators ‘boycott’ annual event, local media report
  • Anti-graft agency has probed affairs of tycoons, officials

Hong Kong’s anti-corruption agency that takes on tycoons and public officials is attracting scrutiny for an unlikely reason -- the postponement of an annual staff dinner.

QuickTake Hong Kong’s Autonomy

Reports in local media of a staff “boycott” of the Independent Commission Against Corruption event, originally scheduled for Friday night, and the exits of the agency’s operational head and a senior investigator have led lawmakers and academics to ask whether all is well at the organization.

It’s a touchy subject: ICAC is at the front lines of the city’s efforts to maintain transparency and the rule of law, credentials that could be at risk from China’s increasing sway.

“This is of great public importance,” said John Burns, the dean of social sciences at the University of Hong Kong, citing the agency’s role in keeping the city honest.

Set up in 1974, ICAC has brought cases against officials including Donald Tsang, the city’s former leader, who denies misconduct in public office and is due to stand trial next year. The agency has also taken on tycoons including billionaire Thomas Kwok, the former Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd. co-chairman who is out on bail as he appeals a conviction.

Staff Feedback

The staff club dinner was postponed after “feedback” from workers, ICAC said by e-mail Thursday. The agency replaced Rebecca Li, the acting operational head, because of her performance, Commissioner Simon Peh said on Monday, without giving more details. A senior investigator, Dale Ko, is leaving, ICAC confirmed.

Neither Li, who is reported by local media to have quit after being demoted, nor Ko have commented publicly.

The explanation for replacing Li wasn’t convincing, according to the academic Burns, who said the commissioner “needs to be more forthcoming about exactly what led to his decision -- and it’s not sufficient to say that this is an internal matter.”

Lawmakers’ Questions

In the legislature on Thursday, lawmakers raised questions about morale at ICAC and suggested Li’s exit could be linked with an investigation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s alleged failure to disclose a HK$50 million ($6.4 million) payment from an Australian company. Leung, who has denied any wrongdoing, said the chief executive “cannot interfere in the works of ICAC.”

In the e-mailed statement, ICAC said it didn’t comment on individual cases.

China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997 under an agreement that provided for the city to maintain an independent judiciary and its common law legal system. The recent detention of Hong Kong booksellers in China because they had sold titles critical of the Communist Party has fueled concerns that the city’s freedoms and values are being eroded.

“The ICAC is an important pillar” that needs to be protected, said Lam Cheuk-ting, a former ICAC investigator who’s a Democratic Party member.

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