Is a political donation a bribe? More importantly, does free speech rise to a level that should prompt an investigation by our anti-corruption watchdog?
We couldn’t help raising these questions after Thursday’s high-profile visit by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to the homes of publisher Jimmy Lai, his assistant Mark Simon and pan-democrat lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan.
Curiously, the incidents came as the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, gave us a glimpse of an election reform package for the 2017 chief executive election and pro-democracy groups prepared to take their opposition to the proposal to the streets.
The ICAC moves could not have come at a more sensitive time, fueling accusations the agency is being used by the government to suppress dissent.
Granted Lai’s own admission that he has contributed HK$40 million to pro-democracy parties in the past few years, there’s no evidence he did anything corrupt or illegal.
Neither is there proof that Lee, whose Labor Party is said to be one of the recipients of Lai’s largesse, benefited personally. It seems his only mistake, if we can call it that, is that he voiced his concerns about press freedom in a speech to the Legislative Council.
Lai has admitted being a full-fledged supporter of Hong Kong democracy since 1989 and his stance has not changed after he founded Next Media Group in 1990.
He believes he has done nothing wrong in supporting the pan-democrats. His donations are no different from those of pro-Beijing tycoons to, say, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong which raised HK$68 million in one night alone during a fundraising dinner.
What about donations to lawmakers to help them organize community services? Should these be treated differently from, say, any favors or advantages offered to a legislator in exchange for support for vested interests?
And what to do with certain district councilors who sponsored a lunch for their supporters in the run-up to the next election?
In a statement, the ICAC denied any political motive for its actions.
But there’s growing speculation the government wants to stifle any sign of dissent to present a “harmonious” face and warm welcome to Beijing when it’s handed the electoral reform package.
Or simply that the government wants to divert attention from the ongoing political debate to the ethics and conduct of pan-democrats.
The danger here is that having set a precedent, the ICAC will have to investigate every political donor and every politician who speaks out for free speech.
Meanwhile, it will begin to miss potential corruption cases — the real ones — because it’s too busy looking for a needle in a haystack.
What a dreadful prospect.
Martin Lee: ICAC visit to Lai home smacks of white terror
ICAC visits homes of Jimmy Lai, Mark Simon, Lee Cheuk-yan
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