Jimmy Lai

Jimmy Lai

Donations scandal opens can of worms for all parties, academic says

Academic says parties across the spectrum would probably prefer city doesn't reform a system that keeps political donations a secret

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 August, 2014, 3:38am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 August, 2014, 7:30am

The millions of dollars Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying has allegedly donated to pan-democrats may be just the tip of the iceberg of the financial backing local politicians get.

A political scientist expects parties across the political spectrum will be reluctant to close loopholes in the system that let them keep donations secret from the public, despite an explosive revelation last week that five pan-democratic lawmakers failed to declare contributions received from the media mogul.

Suffering the worst of the backlash is Labour Party leader Lee Cheuk-yan, who now rues his "bad decision" to keep in his personal bank account HK$500,000 Lai gave him last autumn. After files were leaked on July 22 alleging Lai's donations to pan-democratic parties and politicians, Lee moved the money to his party.

Lee and League of Social Democrats stalwart "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, who earlier admitted accepting HK$500,000 from Lai, offered fresh apologies to the public yesterday for their handling of the donations.

Lee said he feared the incident would hit the credibility of the democracy movement "at a critical stage", and if that happened, he would have let his allies down.

"I did not handle [the donation] well and have failed to put the public at ease," he told Commercial Radio. "I apologise over the doubts we have caused among the public because of the handling [of the donation] by the Labour Party and by me."

Lawmakers are bound by Legislative Council rules to declare their interests.

But if monetary gifts are granted to them via their parties, the public can be kept in the dark under the Companies Ordinance. The law, under which political parties are registered, does not mandate the disclosure of donations.

The system keeps the donors backing individual lawmakers behind a cloak of anonymity.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, for instance, has refused to reveal the breakdown of donations obtained at its fundraising event in April.

The party collected a record HK$68 million, of which almost HK$25 million was attributed to the efforts of Zhang Xiaoming , director of the central government's liaison office, who sang a song and sold a calligraphy artwork to raise funds.

Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said that only a party law would introduce a fair system in the city.

But Choy also noted that parties of all political stripes might have reservations about making their accounts public.

He urged people to look at the issue from a fairer perspective.

"Almost every lawmaker has received donations before. It's just that many of them get the money via their parties," he said.

"Criticising pan-democrats as the only ones who have received donations is unfair."

Fred Li Wah-ming, who heads the Democratic Party's fundraising team, said a party law would inevitably discourage sponsorship from businesses.

He suggested that the DAB might be more afraid of such a law, as it could be financially aided by property tycoons and mainland-backed firms.

Beijing loyalist Wong Kwok-kin, one of five Federation of Trade Unions legislators who filed a joint complaint to Legco against the five pan-democrats, said accepting funds was not the issue. "We are not blaming them for receiving the money, but for their failure to declare," he said.

It would have been acceptable if the lawmakers could present receipts to prove the money was taken on behalf of a third party, like what the Civic Party's Alan Leong Kah-kit did, Wong said.

"But Lee was definitely wrong in transferring the money only after the files came to light."

Lee moved HK$1.5 million received from Lai to his Labour Party this week, including HK$1 million donated in recent weeks.

The lawmaker had said he could not have transferred the autumn donation of HK$500,000 - which was intended to fund the party's recycling social enterprise - sooner because the registration process for the enterprise had been delayed and its bank account was not ready yet.

As for Leung, he transferred Lai's HK$500,000, obtained at the end of last year, to his lawyer to hold soon after he had received it, he said yesterday.

The money was used to pay the legal fees in several court cases involving League members, he said.

The other lawmakers caught in the storm are Democrat James To Kun-sun and Leong's party colleague Claudia Mo Man-ching. Both have repeatedly denied having taken any donations from Lai.