Top-level calls for an end to smear tactics in the campaign to elect Hong Kong's next leader appeared to fall on deaf ears yesterday.
Key players in the latest scandal to rock the chief executive election race clamoured to distance themselves from a controversial businessman at the centre of a storm over triad threats.
Two power brokers gave opposing accounts of a now-infamous dinner attended by members of a rural lobby group and the campaign team of chief executive contender Leung Chun-ying.
The dinner, at a seafood restaurant in Lau Fau Shan last month, is at the centre of a scandal over alleged triad threats against rival candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen, which prompted the latter to call in police.
The dinner was attended by Leung's campaign director, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, and deputies Kaizer Lau Ping-cheung and Karen Tang Shuk-tak, as well as a Leung supporter, Lew Mon-hung, and eight members of rural body the Heung Yee Kuk with votes in the election.
Also at the dinner was controversial businessman Kwok Wing-hung - known, too, as 'Shanghai Boy' - who is thought to be linked to Tang's complaint to the police. All those present deny inviting Kwok, and Leung and his campaign team have sought to distance themselves from the businessman.
The saga took a new twist yesterday when an unnamed kuk member was drawn into the controversy. Lew, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said a 'heavyweight kuk member' helped arrange the meeting to aid communication between Leung's camp and the kuk over illegal structures in the New Territories.
Lew said he did not know who issued the invitation to Kwok.
'I'm friendly with a kuk Election Committee member ... We reached a consensus and I helped contact [Kaizer Lau for the dinner],' he said.
The kuk middleman - whom he refused to name - contacted kuk representatives, Lew said, and he did not know in advance who would attend the dinner. Lew said he and three Leung campaigners paid HK$500 for the meal.
Lew said Kwok was no stranger to the kuk: when land or old buildings were to be bought for new developments, he was the person the kuk would seek help from, Lew said.
Echoing Lew's comments, Leung denied yesterday having anything to do with Kwok. 'I, Leung Chun-ying and my campaign office members do not know Mr Kwok Wing-hung.'
Leung and Lew both said it was Lew who conveyed a message that some kuk members would like to express their views on New Territories issues but that Leung's campaign office did not organise the dinner.
Kwok could not be reached for comment yesterday, but the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao quoted him as saying that a rural representative invited him to the dinner.
Four kuk Election Committee members who were at the dinner offered a different version of events, though. They said the dinner was initiated by Leung's camp, and they did not know Kwok. They also said that during the dinner, Kwok was sitting near Lew, while kuk members were on the other side of the table.
'We didn't pay for the dinner, Leung's camp did ... We said we would share the bill, but no one asked us to pay,' kuk member Hau Chi-keung said.
Kuk chief Lau Wong-fat said he did not believe the villagers were linked to triad members.
Kuk members on the Election Committee nominated Tang but say they will vote according to the candidates' experience and proposals.
On Friday, Tang reported to the police that an unnamed person related to a gang had threatened to release 'black materials' via the media within days over an unspecified matter.
Last week Vice-President Xi Jinping called for Hongkongers to work together, and yesterday senior officials including Chief Secretary Stephen Lam Sui-lung urged participants to uphold Hong Kong's reputation for clean elections.
The Hong Kong Island regional crime unit was investigating Tang's complaint, a police spokesman said.
Additional reporting by Peter So and John Carney