The police are not under pressure to avoid going after major banks and masterminds when investigating suspected money laundering, the head of the narcotics bureau's financial investigations division says.
"We will not let off a big mastermind if we have evidence," Superintendent Gloria Yu Yin-ching said.
Aside from rare exceptions such as Carson Yeung Ka-sing, there appear to have been few major money launderers caught in Hong Kong, said Julian Russell, director of Pacific Risk, a Hong Kong-based risk management consultancy.
Russell pointed out that in previous Hong Kong money laundering cases, launderers working for banks were given immunity from prosecution if they testified against drug traffickers who provided the funds.
In the past four years at least, no bank has been prosecuted for money laundering under Hong Kong law, but over 70 per cent of suspicious transaction reports are made by banks, according to Yu.
"The law is the same for a bank as a person. If we have evidence, we will prosecute a bank," said Senior Inspector Russ Harding, from the same division of the narcotics bureau.
"In the world, there are three major financial centres - New York, London and Hong Kong. So we are bound to have money moving here," Harding said.
It takes a long time for banks to hand over documents in money laundering investigations, Yu said, which explains in part why such inquiries take an average of 18 months.
Another reason for prolonged investigation periods is the increasing complexity of money laundering methods, Yu added. "The money launderers are getting smarter."
It is understood the government is in talks with relevant stakeholders to explore ways to speed up the process.
Criminal groups are known to pick young people at bars as "stooges" to do their frontline work, said Chief Inspector Paul Chung Yat-cheung, who heads four teams of financial investigators. Typically, criminals pay a stooge between thousands and tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars, depending on how much they are asked to launder, said Chung.
Superintendent Yu denied that her division is encouraged to focus its investigations on these low-level figures.
Carson Yeung, the owner of English soccer club Birmingham City, was sentenced to six years' jail earlier this year for laundering HK$721 million.