16 September 2019
ICAC chief Simon Peh said his deputy Rebecca Li (inset) was removed from her post due to poor performance. But not many observers are convinced with the explanation. Photos: HKEJ, ICAC
ICAC chief Simon Peh said his deputy Rebecca Li (inset) was removed from her post due to poor performance. But not many observers are convinced with the explanation. Photos: HKEJ, ICAC

Is ICAC losing its independence?

After facing questions over the abrupt departure of his deputy, the chief of Hong Kong’s anti-graft body finally faced the media on Monday and sought to provide an explanation.

Simon Peh, the Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), told reporters that Rebecca Li had resigned as she was asked to give up the post of acting head of the agency’s investigative unit and return to her previous role.

Li was told to revert to a less significant position as her performance in the top job at the Operations Department didn’t measure up, Peh said.  

He also said that he alone made the decision to remove Li from ICAC’s investigative unit, and that Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, had no role in the matter.  

Leung was merely notified of the decision, Peh said, dismissing suggestions of political interference.

Well, the explanation has failed to convince the skeptics, given the many still unanswered questions about a high-level reshuffle at the city’s anti-corruption body.

It was announced that Ricky Yau, who currently holds the post of Director of Investigation (Private Sector) at ICAC, will take over Li’s job.

Peh said that Li’s performance was not satisfactory, but he failed to give specifics or share details, citing privacy reasons. 

But the comments came in the wake of allegations by the Democratic Party that it suspects that Li may have been removed due to political considerations.

The party cited sources from the anti-graft body as saying that Li has quit as an investigation she was leading into a complaint against Chief Executive Leung failed to make much progress.

The complaint was related to a HK$50 million payment that Leung received from Australian firm UGL in the past. 

The Democratic Party said it has learnt that investigators had been seeking documents from the Executive Council (ExCo) and the Chief Executive’s Office for a year, but they received nothing.

While Leung has insisted that he did nothing wrong in getting the payment from UGL, which was in connection with a bid by the Australian company for property firm DTZ, he was said to have failed to declare the payment to ExCo after taking over as Hong Kong’s chief executive in July 2012.

Leung had been a director of DTZ prior to taking Hong Kong’s top job.

Given the suspicions that he failed to come clean on the transaction, an investigation would have been useful to determine the facts. 

Now, there are allegations that Li was thwarted in her bid to look into the matter, and that Leung’s office sought to derail the issue.

Under Hong Kong law, the ICAC has the power to investigate any corruption case inside or outside the government.

However, the anti-graft organization’s independence has come into doubt due to perceived political meddling.

Appointees for the commissioner post need to be approved by the central government in Beijing, a move that doesn’t help the credibility of the person occupying the top post.

Being a loyalist of Beijing doesn’t mean that a person can’t provide effective leadership to the ICAC. However, the reality is that the person will be wary about pursuing politically sensitive cases, fearing trouble from the north.

As Li’s boss, Peh might have been concerned about the approach being taken by his deputy with regard to some investigations, including the one pertaining to Leung. 

Having appointed Li as acting head of ICAC’s Operations Department last year, it was assumed that Peh will promote her and officially name her the head of the department at the right time.

Instead, what we have seen is sudden removal of Li from her post and her subsequent resignation.

As Li has been praised in the past for her successes in various investigations, it is hard to accept Peh’s remarks now that her performance was not up to the mark.

Can her performance decline sharply in just 12 months? It’s quite absurd to suggest that.

As Peh refused to give any specifics of Li’s “poor” performance, the public — as well as some ICAC insiders — are suspecting that her removal was due to political reasons.

Some newspapers have suggested that Li has earned the displeasure of Beijing as she has refused to be “social” with mainland officials.

If that charge is true, it is silly as Li is just being prudent, given the controversy surrounding former ICAC commissioner Timothy Tong.

Tong has been accused of damaging the credibility of the ICAC as he built close relationships with Chinese officials.

Some political observers believe that Peh may have fired Li in order to prevent trouble for Leung.

As the chief executive has direct or indirect influence over the ICAC, questions are being raised as to the independence of the anti-graft body.  

In December 2014, ICAC drew flak after it appointed Maria Tam, a deputy to China’s National People’s Congress, as head of the operations review committee of the agency.

The move was seen as part of efforts by the political establishment to have a say in cases taken up by the agency. 

Coming back to Li, the controversy surrounding her removal from the investigative unit received only scant coverage in pro-government newspapers in Hong Kong.

There is speculation that the government’s spin doctors were active behind the scenes to play down the issue.

Li has been a high-flyer at the ICAC, rising through the ranks after a career spanning more than 30 years at the agency.

She assumed the post of Head of Operations on July 18 last year, becoming the first female to lead the department. Li was also the first ICAC officer to be sent for special training with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2002.

Given her strong track record, her removal from the top post will continue to fuel suspicions of underhand dealings by politically powerful people.

Besides the apparent injustice done to an upright officer, what is worrying is what this means to the future of Hong Kong’s anti-graft body.    

The thought passing through the minds of many people is this: Are we seeing the end of the “independent” in the Independent Commission Against Corruption? 

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EJ Insight writer