Hong Kong's anti-graft body is probing at least four pro-democracy activists, including media magnate Jimmy Lai, at a time when the city is in a state of political agitation over proposed reforms to allow the people to directly elect their leader.
At 7am yesterday, four officials from the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) descended on Mr Lai's mansion at Kadoorie Avenue in a surprise visit, and departed after four hours.
The ICAC declined comment initially but issued a statement last evening. It said it started the probe after receiving corruption complaints alleging that some legislators had accepted advantages in breach of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance.
Mr Lai, 65, speaking to the media outside his home, would only say: "ICAC was here. It is gone now. I have no further comments." Trading in shares of Next Media, which Mr Lai owns, was suspended in the morning after a 5.1 per cent price slide. Its stable of publications includes the fiercely anti-Beijing newspaper Apple Daily.
The tycoon was in the limelight recently, after e-mail messages showing that he had been making donations to pan-democrat politicians and supporting the Occupy movement were leaked.
While donations are not illegal, the legislators did not declare them as required. They include lawmaker Lee Cheuk Yan, a key organiser of events such as the June 4 vigil, who said ICAC officials also visited his home yesterday and seized bank statements.
Mr Lee said they were looking into links between donations from Mr Lai and a LegCo speech he had made in January about the Standard Chartered Bank being forced to yank advertisements from newspapers because of political pressure.
The magnate was also revealed as having close links with American politicians such as former United States deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
In recent months, Beijing officials have suggested that certain people in Hong Kong are consorting with foreign forces to make the city a base for foreign subversion. Following the e-mail leaks, pro-Beijing groups said they will be lodging complaints with the ICAC to investigate if there has been any misconduct.
Political analyst Johnny Lau said yesterday's raids could be just the preliminary stage of collecting evidence. But he added that "it is quite serious" for ICAC officials to visit the homes, as the usual protocol is to summon people for questioning.
Some pro-democrat legislators yesterday alleged "political persecution". Mr Lau noted: "We cannot speculate on the intention of the ICAC but the timing is quite sensitive... and has led outsiders to believe that there could be some hidden influence."
In its statement yesterday, the ICAC stressed its impartiality. "The ICAC, as always, has no political consideration in enforcing the law."
The investigation comes as China's top legislative body, the National People's Congress's Standing Committee, meets in Beijing to hammer out the framework for Hong Kong's constitutional reform.
Sources told local media the report, to be out on Sunday, is likely to stipulate stringent criteria for candidates running for chief executive.
This includes capping the number of candidates at two or three. To be nominated, candidates need half the votes of a nominating panel, expected by many to be packed with Beijing loyalists and vested interests, so a pan-democrat is unlikely to get through.
If so, it is likely to spark a bitter and protracted process for Hong Kong. Occupy Central organisers have signalled they could begin their sit-in protest in the city's financial district next month, while student activists are mobilising a boycott of classes.
This article was published on Aug 29 in The Straits Times.
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