The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has been hailed as a bedrock of Hong Kong’s rule of law and clean governance. The slogan says it all: Hong Kong, our advantage is always you and the ICAC.
Yet, the anti-graft watchdog was once plagued by questions about its future around the 1997 handover, when the ICAC found itself in the glare of the international community. What would happen once the ICAC ceases to exist under the new regime?
Shoring up public confidence was one of the biggest challenges in Tony Kwok Man-wai’s 27-year career at the ICAC after he was promoted to deputy commissioner that year to lead the Operations Department, the first ethnic Chinese to head the ICAC’s law enforcement arm.
Almost 1,500 arrests were made throughout the short span of two years following the handover, when Kwok and his agents hunted down locals, mainlanders and foreigners. Many took more than a passing interest in how the fate of the venerable corruption buster would play out.
The first “big tiger” that Kwok nailed was Harris Myers, then head of the Government Printing Department, for accepting advantages in office. A slew of other major cases involved police superintendents, customs officials and even match-fixing soccer players.
Kwok, the stalwart of the anti-bribery agency, was awarded the Silver Bauhinia Star in 2002, the year of his retirement.
Clean image stained
Fast forward 15 years after Kwok’s retirement and the former graft-buster has a new passion. He told the Hong Kong Economic Journal that his latest pastime is watching In the Name of the People, a mainland TV drama with a candid, realistic portrayal of corruption.
The show is perhaps an admission by the mainland authorities of the rampant graft and rent-seeking north of the border, as Kwok sees it. He is shocked by the depiction of the systematic, syndicated corruption that has swallowed provincial party chiefs, public security officials all the way to prosecutors and judges.
“The situation in the mainland, as at least seen in this realistic TV drama, is far graver than what Hong Kong used to be in the 1970s, when the ICAC was created to root out flagrant corruption… The scenario is like the Chief Executive, Secretary for Justice and the Commissioner of Police conspiring to get the most from their office while bent on bringing each other down.”
The not-so-glamorous role of Hong Kong in the TV play also set Kwok thinking. In the political drama — as in reality — fugitives who fall foul of the law make a beeline for the territory, hiding in luxurious hotel suites while whitewashing their loot, like by setting up private funds.
Hong Kong middlemen, political compradors and the “Three Seasons Hotel”, a fictitious hotel in Central that used to be a popular hideout for runaway party barons and their business cohorts, were all featured in the 52-episode series.
The fact that the territory was portrayed as a safe haven for corrupt officials may leave audiences the impression that Hong Kong is a place where criminals at large become movers and shakers, even when their wheeling and dealing are probed at home.
“The SAR government must do something when Hong Kong’s image of a clean society is being tarnished like this,” Kwok said.
One way to plug the loophole is by introducing an extradition treaty with the mainland. Yet, the crux of the issue is that many felonies still carry the death penalty in the mainland. “Beijing can promise that the accused criminals to be returned won’t face capital punishment, as it did in the Lai Changxing case.”
Tung the unsung hero
Kwok joined the ICAC in 1974, when it was just established by the then Governor Sir Murray MacLehose, vested with almost carte blanche powers to fight endemic extortion and graft-taking in the police force.
Chasing police constables in the street after they received protection money from hawkers was one of Kwok’s most vivid memories. “It’s the job of policemen to go after thieves and other bad guys and it’s our job to go after policemen if they get any bribes.”
Hong Kong transformed itself into one of the cleanest societies in Asia within just a few years thanks to zero tolerance, in particular the public’s vigilance in reporting any corruption, even of some petty advantages or bribe as little as a few dollars. “This is exactly what the mainland lacks in its fight against corruption,” Kwok said.
Tung Chee-hwa must be given credit for ensuring ICAC’s continued fight against corruption after 1997, when the first chief executive gave Kwok and his team unwavering backing during ICAC’s probes like those involving Bank of China senior executives and the local branch of a conglomerate owned by the Guangdong provincial government.
“Tung could always expect phone calls begging mitigation or stretching the rules a little bit, but we never got any meddling from the leader, none whatsoever, other than reassurances that the ICAC must withstand the pressure and stick to the law, especially when everyone was watching,” recalled Kwok.
“We didn’t have to report to him about our investigations as we operated independently, but Tung’s words were vital for us to plough ahead.”
Tung’s many policy blunders notwithstanding, perhaps no Hongkongers will question his integrity during his seven years in office.
‘No coffee for suspects’
Numerous movies and TV dramas featuring the ICAC agents have greatly contributed to its fame, both locally and across the border, shedding light on the culture as well as some trivia of the otherwise low-key law enforcer.
One is the infamous “ICAC coffee”, said to have a very undrinkable taste so as to punish those who refuse to assist in an investigation.
“No, this is absolutely not true. We never serve coffee to suspects or those arrested. What if he or she gets stomach ache and can’t help with the investigation after drinking coffee?
“But other people, like a witness or informant, can of course choose from a menu what he likes to drink.”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 13
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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