Kwok Bros’ Arrest: Whose Coup?

1 04 2012

Does the fall of the Kwok brothers represent the revival of Hong Kong’s revered anti-corruption force, or the adoption of mainland-style power consolidation tactics by C Y Leung?

On 29 March, in its biggest coup in years, Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) arrested two members of the second wealthiest family in Hong Kong, property tycoon brothers Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong (郭炳江) and Raymond Kwok Ping-luen (郭炳联). More shocking, though less entertaining to the millions of Hong Kong citizens living in over-priced sub-divided apartments, was the arrest also of former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan (许仕仁), the most senior ex-government official the ICAC has ever taken on.

On immediate reflection, there are several ways these arrests could be viewed.

1) Assuming complete independence of action by ICAC: simply as ICAC doing its job. 

2) Assuming ICAC is not confident enough to proceed with such a high-profile case without high level political support: as ICAC responding to the new political environment now that CY has won the Chief Executive (CE) race.

3) Assuming more agency on the part of the CE: as the removal of protection from the suspects, with the aim of firing a warning shot to show the tycoons who’s in charge now (or, less cynically, because criminals shouldn’t be protected on principle).

4) Also assuming CE agency in removing protection: as CY seizing an opportunity to at once impress certain individuals in Beijing, and also win back popular support in his home city.

So how is Hong Kong’s media reading it? Naturally, the ICAC is receiving praise for finally taking on a high-profile case after years of apparent decline. In absence of proof, there is a general reticence in assigning either credit or machiavellian scheming to “comrade Leung” (梁同志 pinyin: Liang tongzhi – CY’s nickname, due to his rumoured CCP membership), who is wisely keeping quiet on the topic. In true Hong Kong style, much of the coverage is focused on the impact on Sun Hung Kai share prices.

Up in Beijing, this story broke just days after Wen Jiabao had covened a State Council conference on anti-corruption work, at which he again emphasised the threat that corruption posed to the Party, though as usual omitted any suggestion of an anti-corruption body independent of the CCP. The Kwok brothers’ story received fairly prominent coverage in the Youth Daily, affiliated to Wen and Hu Jintao’s Youth League faction, while deep within the People’s Daily website was an article propounding the virtues of the ICAC as an institution. 

It would be fun to write a narrative wherein Wen Jiabao, having deposed Bo Xilai, is planning a full-on programme of political reform, at the heart of which would be a Hong Kong-style independent anti-corruption force (to work alongside the independent judiciary, of course). In this alternate reality, C Y Leung authorised the arrests, previously blocked by a tycoon-Donald Tsang nexus, as part of a coordinated drive to crack down on corruption and elitism, boosting support for mainland reformists.

That is of course nonsense. However, the timing of the arrests, just days after CY’s success in the CE race, does throw into question the complete independence of ICAC and allows the possibility of interpretations 2 to 4 above. Option 2 does not exactly allow great optimism for ICAC’s future. If you veer towards the last two, it suddenly all looks very much like a mainland-style power consolidation – boosting your own popularity while weakening opposing political factions. The logic used in mainland corruption crackdowns is as follows: corruption is endemic, but only the politically vulnerable fall.

Still, let’s remain optimistic and hope it is option 1.