Hong Kong tycoons to stand trial in graft case

Hong Kong tycoons to stand trial in graft case
Raymond Kwok (left), co-chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd., and Thomas Kwok, co-chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd., react during a news conference in Hong Kong, China, on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013.

HONG KONG, China - Two of Hong Kong's richest tycoons will go on trial Thursday in the city's biggest ever corruption case - which analysts say threatens to cast an uncomfortable spotlight on cosy ties between officials and wealthy moguls.

Thomas and Raymond Kwok, who jointly chair development giant Sun Hung Kai Properties, and Hong Kong's former chief secretary Rafael Hui were arrested in a major swoop by the city's anti-graft watchdog in March 2012.

The two brothers, ranked fourth on the Forbes Hong Kong 2014 rich list, were accused by the watchdog of bribing Hui, who held the government's second-highest position and is the most senior official ever arrested for graft.

They were among five people charged with eight offences related to payments and unsecured loans amounting to HK$34 million (US$4.38 million). All have pleaded not guilty.

The others include another Sun Hung Kai director, Thomas Chan, and Francis Kwan, the former non-executive director of New Environmental Energy Holdings, an investment company.

Hui, 66, faces eight charges, some of which relate to misconduct in being "favourably disposed to Sun Hung Kai Properties... and Thomas Kwok and Raymond Kwok" while in office in return for payments, according to a Department of Justice indictment.

Charges against Hui also relate to rent-free use of luxury apartments and acceptance of unsecured loans, the document said.

Thomas Kwok, 62, faces three charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, while his younger brother Raymond, 60, has been charged with four offences including furnishing false information, according to the document.

The case has shocked Hong Kong, where Sun Hung Kai is the biggest property developer by market capitalisation and owns some of the city's most iconic real estate.

The southern Chinese city is seen as relatively graft-free - it was ranked the joint 15th cleanest country or territory in 2013 by global corruption watchdog Transparency International.

A 'wake-up call' for tycoons

However, the arrests have revived discussion on links between wealthy tycoons and officials in the Asian financial centre that have long raised public suspicion.

"This case will reinforce the public perception that the Hong Kong government has been vulnerable to the possible influence of the capitalist class," Sonny Lo, head of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education told AFP.

"This case, whatever the result, will reinforce that public perception of government-business connections," said Lo, who specialises in politics and corruption.

Tanrich Securities vice president Jackson Wong said the Kwok brothers case is a "wake-up call for all the tycoons" in Hong Kong.

"Because Hong Kong tycoons are under heavy scrutiny right now, I don't think they are going to do business with a careless behaviour like before," Jackson said.

Chinese business culture is built on the system of personal connections, or "guanxi", Wong said, adding that some tycoons may now avoid drawing on favours from their guanxi for fear of being seen to break the law.

"Sometimes there's a fine line between corruption and guanxi," he said. Former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang ended his term in disgrace in June 2012 after admitting to accepting gifts from tycoons in the form of trips on luxury yachts and private jets.

And Hong Kong billionaire Joseph Lau was in March found guilty of bribing a former minister in the gambling enclave of Macau in an attempt to purchase a prime development site in the former Portuguese colony.

Lau, who was not in Macau for the sentencing, will unlikely serve time as the two Chinese cities do not have an extradition agreement.

The Kwoks, who have an estimated family wealth of US$17.5 billion according to Forbes magazine, pleaded not guilty to the corruption charges.

"I believe I have not done anything wrong and that the Hong Kong judiciary system is fair. I will fight the accusations and I hope it will prove my innocence," Raymond Kwok said after being charged in July 2012.

The hearing will take place at Hong Kong's High Court on Thursday morning.

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