Where to now for the ICAC?
One of Hong Kong’s proudest institutions finds itself under scrutiny, as fears of political interference in its corruption-busting work grow
Exactly one year ago the Independent Commission Against Corruption handed arguably the most important crime-fighting job in Hong Kong, for the first time ever, to a woman.
There was little fanfare when ICAC Commissioner Simon Peh Yun-lu installed 53-year-old Rebecca Li Bo-lan as head of the Operations Department, the powerful investigative arm at the heart of the battle to keep the city’s ghosts of corruption past – bribery, favouritism and influence peddling – at bay.
The lack of a raised eyebrow, in a city where even the paving stones have become political, suggested Li was widely seen as a suitable candidate.
Fast forward 12 months and the commission, respected and copied around the world as a model in the fight against corruption is now itself mired in allegations that Li was ousted because she refused to soft pedal an ongoing investigation into a HK$50 million payment made to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
Certainly Peh must have thought Li was suitable. Neither when he announced Li’s appointment nor in the days after he dumped her, did the former immigration chief offer any hint that she was on probation.
It was only after the clamour for an explanation grew that Peh insisted her appointment was made out of “administrative convenience’’.
Both historically and in her own office, Li – decorated and dedicated to the point of being a workaholic – was very much a woman in a man’s world. But in 32 years on the front line of arguably the toughest crime-fighting job in town, she had more than held her own, cracking some the ICAC’s biggest cases along the way. Making enemies was integral.
But friends and foes agreed you did not want to be investigated by Rebecca Li.
“Uncompromising” and “a street fighter” are just two of the combative descriptions used by excolleagues as regards Li. She may not have the academic smarts increasingly deemed necessary to navigate the dark underbellies of the internet and global finance where most corruption lurks, but by hook or by crook she would get results, they say.
And consider this: Three main units – operations, corruption prevention and community relations – make up the commission and in 2015, the operations department boasted a staff of 986, more than four times the combined number of people employed in the other two.
But the absence of a meaningful explanation for Li’s removal has left people asking: has the ICAC lost its fearless and independent mojo? Or, less histrionically, can it change to meet the demands of a fast-changing criminal and political reality?
The only broadly comparable crisis the agency has found itself in was when Alex Tsui Ka-kit, the watchdog’s first Chinese deputy director of operations and the third most senior officer, was sacked. The ICAC refused to say why, citing confidentiality.
In the years since, rumours and speculation suggested that then colonial governor Chris Patten had lost confidence in Tsui and pushed for him to be sacked. But this has never been anything more than rumour.
It was then ICAC commissioner Betrand de Speville, who now runs an international anticorruption consultancy in Britain, who sacked Tsui. He insists it was his decision and his decision alone.
The Tsui affair led to a major Legislative Council inquiry, at which lawmakers grilled both De Speville and director of operations Jim Buckle at length.
There have been calls for a similar probe into the Li removal, but Peh and the commission may just have been saved by the end of this legislative session and the installation of a new chamber after September’s elections. Serving and former ICAC investigators are worried, one told the Post this week.
He said: “It has taken one generation to break the back of corruption here, and school children now grow up not worrying about the awful things that their parents had to deal with just to make it.
“It would take very much less than a generation to revert to ‘the good old days’ if we let it. One could say that ICAC is Hong Kong’s golden egg. Well the goose that laid it is dead, are we now going to break the egg?
“I am getting questions from all over the world from former colleagues and friends asking what is happening. They are telling me it must be China pulling the strings. I have resisted that simple explanation, which is used here for anything that goes wrong and lean towards just another cock-up.
“Unless there is a proper explanation, which has not so far been given, then many people will fear the worst: that there was outside influence, and the acting director of operations disagreed with something she was told to do by her commissioner who was himself only following orders.’’
The ICAC in answer to questions from the Post insist the battle against graft continues on the same terms as before. But it is apparent it also realises the reality of Beijing’s huge anti-corruption drive and the changing political landscape.
“While the ICAC works independently and without interference, the commission recognises the importance of cross-jurisdictional cooperation in combatting corruption and related crimes, and stands ready to assist within the established framework of mutual assistance,’’ a spokeswoman said.
The commission also realises the importance of its international reputation for independence and reach. “In 2015, 4,210 persons from 11 international and regional organisations, and 53 countries and territories [including the mainland] visited the ICAC,’’ the spokeswoman said.
The 40-year-old agency not only has an internal struggle for its future on its hands – as evidenced by a reassuring memo to all ICAC staff from Peh – it also has a fine balancing act to carry out, whilst keeping corruption at bay.
As De Speville told the respected Indonesian publication Tempo in a rare interview in 2012 when asked what the key was to eradicating corruption: “First it is political will, second your values in law. The law that says bribery is wrong, bribery is a serious crime. Third, a strategy for fighting corruption, a strategy that comprises these three elements: repression, prevention and public education and support.”
The Post has it on good authority that today De Speville forms part of an informal group of former ICAC commissioners who follow the mainland’s current struggle against corruption and who are willing to lend their expertise. It has not yet been sought.
An ICAC timeline and the comissioners
1974: The ICAC was established on February 15, 1974, with the enactment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Ordinance. The watchdog is independent of the civil service and the commissioner is answerable directly to the colonial governor.
1974-75: Former police chief superintendent Peter Fitzroy Godber was charged with bribery and conspiracy after investigators linked him to bank accounts worth HK$4.3 million. Extradited from the UK in 1975, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in jail in what is seen as the ICAC’s first taste of victory against a corrupt police force at the time.
1977: The then governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, granted a partial amnesty to pardon cases of corruption that had occurred before 1977 after dozens of police officers stormed the ICAC offices and attacked staff. The move put an end to widespread fears by civil servants and police officers that they would be hunted down for past wrongdoings.
1988-94: A cigarette smuggling syndicate in Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore – one of the biggest in the world – was smashed. The total value of the cigarettes was HK$8.5 billion. One of the syndicate members was brutally murdered in Singapore after he agreed to testify in court but refused to enter witness protection.
1993: Alex Tsui Ka-kit, the watchdog’s first Chinese deputy director of operations and the third most senior officer, was sacked. The ICAC refused to say why, citing confidentiality. The shocking dismissal raised questions about the ICAC’s internal powers and secretive structure.
2013: Timothy Tong Hin-ming, who served as ICAC commissioner between 2007 and 2012, became the subject of a special Legislative Council inquiry after allegations of gifts and other lavish expense claims he made during his tenure. He escaped criminal charges, but the government admitted that the controversy inevitably undermined the ICAC’s image.
2014: Former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan became the highest-ranking government official to be convicted of bribery. The former government number two was jailed for seven and a half years after being found guilty of receiving over HK$11 million in favours from property tycoon Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong.
2016: Acting head of operations Rebecca Li Bo-lan was removed from her post, sparking a public outcry that the decision was politically motivated following rumours that she had been in charge of investigations against the chief executive regarding a HK$50 million payment.