A clear message that Hong Kong will not tolerate corruption
Former top government official and property tycoon have lost their final appeals against charges of misconduct in public office, despite arguments that theirs was simply a ‘thought crime’
One of the defining principles of Hong Kong’s legal system is that everyone is treated equally before the law. That includes the rich and the powerful. The decision by the top court to reject appeals against corruption convictions by two prominent figures has ensured that principle is upheld. The unanimous decision by five Court of Final Appeal judges lays to rest the biggest graft trial in the city’s history. Former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan and former Sun Hung Kai Properties tycoon Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong must now serve the remainder of their jail terms. They were both convicted in 2014 of plotting to commit misconduct in public office. Hui, who was also found guilty of other charges, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years, Kwok for five years. At the heart of the appeal was a payment of HK$8.5 million by Kwok to Hui, via two middlemen, before Hui became chief secretary in 2005.
The dramatic downfall of these two former pillars of Hong Kong society shows that no one is beyond the reach of the law. It serves as a warning to all in public office that the highest ethical standards are expected of them. Benefits which might, in the past, have been regarded as a perk of the job are now correctly viewed as unlawful and liable to lead to arrest. It is a lesson that former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has also learned. He is now on bail pending his own appeal against a conviction for misconduct in public office.
Hui and Kwok’s appeal focused on the failure by prosecutors to identify any act committed by Hui in return for the money. Their lawyers argued that to uphold their convictions would amount to creating a “thought crime” and set a dangerous precedent. The court said Hui accepted the cash in return for his “favourable disposition” towards Sun Hung Kai while in office.
It is difficult to dispute the court’s conclusion that such a bargain was “clearly corrupt”. The court has, however, adopted a broad view of the misconduct in public office offence. Care must be taken to ensure that this is not abused by prosecutors, or used by mischief-makers to target officials for political ends. It is good that this unhappy chapter in Hong Kong’s history has ended – and that a message has been sent that corruption will not be tolerated.