Hong Kong’s ICAC at risk of losing its independence
The reshuffle that matters to Hong Kong is not about Donald Trump nor Leung Chun-ying; but a little known name, Rebecca Li Bo-lan.
She has been heading the 860-strong investigating team at the Independent Commission Against Corruption since June 2015.
Last week, the 53-year-old career graft-buster was told to leave her job as its Acting Head of Operations. The move is unprecedented. The commission has given no explanation.
Her successor is Ricky Yau who had been moved out from the investigation team to the Community Relations Department until 2014.
To appreciate the problem, one must know the Head of Operations plays a much more significant role than the title suggests. It is part of the commission’s own checks and balance system.
The Commissioner is generally considered number one at the watchdog given his or her overwhelming power.
In reality, the Commissioner has little knowledge of the commission’s core business – investigation – up until the very last minute of a case.
This is due to the “need-to- know” principle which has been guiding the watchdog since its establishment in the 1970s.
The Head of Operations oversees the probes while the Commissioner takes care of policy, public image and international relations.
The former’s role is so vital that he or she is also, by practise, the Deputy Commissioner who is appointed by the Hong Kong Chief Executive; not by the ICAC Commissioner.
By the same token, the Operations Department is accountable not to the Commissioner; but the Operations Review Committee(ORC), comprising largely members of the public appointed by the Chief Executive.
In short, the top investigator is one of the three pillars of the commission’s independence alongside the Commissioner and ORC.
What has caused the swift change in such a important job within a year?
Li’s credentials cannot help explain it. She has spent almost three decades bringing corrupters to justice, cracking major cases and winning the ICAC medal for distinguished service in 2007.
She waited more than two years as the department’s number two after a succession committee passed her over in favour of a retiree, citing insufficient experience at the senior level.
Neither can the poor condition of the commission’s human resources explain it. It has been suffering a high turnover rate and succession failure in recent years.
At least two retired employees were hired to fill senior jobs. Among them was the former Head of Operations.
The decision to get rid of Rebecca Li also went against the norms of bureaucracy. Demotion is never easy in the establishment. To avoid appeal, prior warning and extension of probation is always the answer to any “unsatisfactory” performance.
Li is understood to have been offered none of these. The tough investigator was so shocked by the decision that she leftin tears.
The commission owes the public an answer. Sensitivity and the secrecy of its job is no excuse when a key job, as well as the ICAC’s integrity, is at stake.
In 1993, the Commission had to face the grilling of a Legislative Council Select Committee on the dismissal of a senior assistant director.
In this case, the commission’s silence would only add to mounting doubt over its independence following several controversial appointments.
In 2014, National People’s Congress deputy Maria Tam Wai-chu was appointed chairwoman of the ORC, the body that is empowered to question the commission on any decision to drop a case.
For years, the job was held by retired senior civil servants, professionals and businessmen with no political affiliation.
In contrast, Tam not only has strong Beijing ties but also a tainted reputation given her failure to disclose family investment in the taxi business while she chaired a transport advisory group for the colonial government.
At the same time, the commissioner is seen to be losing its seniority in the establishment.
In the colonial days, it was a job reserved for retiring administrative officers who were policy makers high up the hierarchy.
After 1997, instead of having a retired judge to strengthen its independence, the top job was passed to “policy takers” further down the hierarchy.
There are senior officers from Hong Kong’s disciplinary forces who have always been the prime targets of the commission since its establishment. The incumbent Simon Peh has built his whole career in the Immigration Department.
That leaves its top investigator the last pillar of the commission’s independence untouched. Hong Kong cannot and should not tolerate any doubt on that.