16 February 2019
Any inaction or even cover-up over what really happened to Rebecca Li will further undermine public confidence not only in the ICAC but in the entire government. Photo: HKEJ
Any inaction or even cover-up over what really happened to Rebecca Li will further undermine public confidence not only in the ICAC but in the entire government. Photo: HKEJ

Don’t let the ICAC further degenerate

Recent events at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) – particularly the demotion and subsequent resignation of its deputy commissioner and the acting chief of its investigative unit Rebecca Li Bo-lan – have raised grave public concern and provoked a backlash from within the anti-graft watchdog.

According to news reports, the ICAC even had to postpone its annual dinner because it was boycotted by staff.

There are a lot of inconsistencies in the various explanations given by ICAC Commissioner Simon Peh Yun-lu about Li’s demotion and also discrepancies between what he said and what Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said that cry out for further investigation.

On July 7 Peh told media that he personally made the decision to remove Rebecca Li from her position as acting chief of the ICAC investigative unit, but refused to comment on whether the Chief Executive had been involved in making that decision.

Then on July 11, he affirmed that it was his decision to demote Li, but added that he had notified the chief executive of his decision beforehand.

However, the next day CY Leung said he learned about Li’s demotion only after the decision had been made.

In a nutshell, Peh said he had told Leung about his decision beforehand but Leung denied that, suggesting that either one of them must have been lying.

Under the existing ICAC Ordinance, the power to appoint the ICAC’s deputy commissioner, who by tradition is often put in charge of the anti-graft body’s investigative unit at the same time, rests with the chief executive, regardless of whether the appointment is temporary or permanent.

It would have been totally inconceivable for Peh to unilaterally demote Li without the chief executive’s authorization because it is not within his power to do so.

So here is what might have happened: either Peh took the liberty of demoting Li or the chief executive was lying about his involvement in the whole thing.

Either way, there is every reason to open an independent inquiry into the matter and follow all the facts wherever they lead.

After the saga had come to light some pro-government political pundits argued that since Li only served as acting deputy ICAC commissioner, her removal from office didn’t require the chief executive’s permission.

To counter that argument, let’s take a look at how the so-called “acting for administrative convenience” is usually arranged.

There are two types of acting for administrative convenience. One is short term, typically related to vacations. The second type is long term, which is the case with Li.

Anyone who is chosen to fill the position has to undergo rigorous and careful scrutiny by the highest level of the government to make sure he or she is up to the job.

Based on previous instances, those who had been chosen to occupy a position in an acting capacity would, almost without exception, be offered a permanent appointment after one year or so.

That Li, a highly experienced and capable anti-corruption agent, was denied permanent appointment as deputy commissioner after having spent one year in that position is highly unusual.

And the explanations of both the ICAC chief and the chief executive have only raised more questions than answers.

As we all know, CY Leung is currently under ICAC investigation for his alleged receipt of HK$50 million from the Australian engineering company UGL over the acquisition of his surveyor firm, and Rebecca Li was in charge of the investigation.

Given that, it is logical for every sensible person to infer that Li’s demotion could have something to do with the investigation.

In fact, the ICAC’s decision not to press charges against its former commissioner Timothy Tong in 2013 had already dealt a heavy blow to its hard-earned credibility and reputation.

Any inaction or cover-up over what really happened to Li this time will further undermine public confidence not only in the ICAC but in the entire government.

That said, I strongly urge members of the next Legislative Council to open an inquiry into Li’s case immediately after they assume office and give the general public a clear and conclusive answer to this critical matter.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 20.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe