A network of influence
The controversy might have died down, but a question mark continues to hang over how Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah awarded a HK$220 million cyber-learning contract to an affiliate of the Internet Professional Association (iProA).
Lawmakers may have failed in their calls for an investigation into political inference in the awarding of the contract but there can be no doubt about the close ties between iProA and the government.
The intertwining connections came to light after whistle-blower Jeremy Godfrey, the government's former information technology chief, said he had been pressured by Tsang and former commerce chief Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan to appoint iProA to run the scheme, which involves a subsidised internet-learning plan that includes sending volunteers to help poor children in their homes.
The furore has confused iProA founding president Ringo Lam Wing-kwan, who said iProA was not the only group trying to establish good relations with the government and mainland officials.
After the handover in 1997, Lam said, IT groups started to lean towards the central government for business.
'It may not be fair to highlight the pro-Beijing colour of only iProA,' said Lam, who also founded the popular Chinese-language information archive Wisers. 'After all, it is hard to avoid politics after 1997; professional unions need to find a way out.'
In 2000 Lam passed the presidency of iProA to Dr Elizabeth Quat. His involvement with the association has since decreased but he is still a member of its council.
Quat is now a committee member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and a Sha Tin district councillor. Though no longer iProA president, she also retains close ties with it.
A policy group convenor for iProA when Quat became president, Wong Sai-chak, said iProA had positioned itself as politically neutral in its early days. 'But I realised it became more like a chamber for business opportunities since Quat became chief,' said Wong, who decided to leave the association in 2004, when it abandoned its political neutrality.
From 2005, the group's executive council contained many company directors. 'Since then it organised annual National Day celebrations,' said Wong, who became director of a company owned by his family after he left iProA.
The chiefs of two major telecommunication companies - Ricky Wong Wai-ki of City Telecom, and Peter Wong of Hutchison Telecom - have also sat on its council.
Wong said such close ties with big businesses could prove to be sensitive for an IT organisation.
'Business in IT relies heavily on information flow since the amount of transactions is usually large so companies need time for financing,' said Wong. 'If company owners can get advance information of upcoming tenders, they have more time to prepare and arrange capital.'
And, relative to other IT professional organisations, it has a relatively low threshold for membership. While the other IT unions require exams for membership, people who hold a relevant degree or professional qualifications with at least two years' experience in the IT sector, or six years for those with an IT-related subdegree, can claim membership of iProA with IT voting rights in Legco's functional constituency for the IT sector. 'That means an administrator of an online forum can also join,' Wong said.
Membership of iProA jumped in 2007, when it began to share members with the Hong Kong Information Technology and Networking Engineering Employees' Association, a subsidiary of the Federation of Trade Unions. The union has close ties with pro-Beijing groups. 'There were only a few hundred members when I left iProA in 2004,' said Wong. Now, it has over 2,600 members.
'Since then, more officials from the central government's liaison office attended iProA's functions, even [deputy] director Li Gang would attend its activities,' said Wong.
Despite iProA's low membership threshold applicants are screened by a vetting committee of which Quat and current president Dr Winnie Tang Shuk-ming are members.
'Pan-democrat applicants could be screened out through this committee,' Wong said, but did not provide any examples.
Quat and Tang were both 'typical businesswomen', Wong said, and when Tang was awarded government contracts, iProA was monetarily tied up with the government.
Honorary secretary Gary Yeung Man-yui has been affiliated with iProA since he was a student majoring in computer engineering at the University of Science and Technology. The 28-year-old chaired iProA's junior committee in 2006 and is currently an advisory member.
Working as a volunteer for Quat since the age of 19, Yeung teamed up with Quat under the DAB in the district council elections in 2007, with both elected as Sha Tin district councilors and now sharing an office in Ma On Shan. Yeung became embroiled in a scandal where his social enterprise allegedly fabricated opinions - all against pan-democrats - in an online forum.
Wong said the pro-government network had turned iProA into a good place for finding jobs.
Yvonne Wong, who sits on iProA's council, is currently a vice-chairwoman of eInclusion, the iProA affiliate that won the HK$220 million internet learning bid.
She is also the manager of corporate partnership and business development of Group Sense - owned by Samson Tam Wai-ho, the lawmaker representing the IT functional constituency.
She got to know Tam in iProA, then soon became employed in Tam's company, said Wong. 'Given Wong's capacity in eInclusion, in a sense Tam could not be totally excluded from the Godfrey incident.'
Tam could not be reached for comment.
The number of people taught by iProA to use the internet since 2005, according to its website
- 2,000 'volunteers' registered as teachers