Real-life Cold War 2 in Hong Kong

The logo of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is seen on the wall of its headquarters in North Point, Hong Kong.
The logo of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is seen on the wall of its headquarters in North Point, Hong Kong.PHOTO: EPA

Was political pressure reason top corruption investigator got demoted?

Cinemas across Hong Kong this month are screening Cold War 2, the political thriller starring Aaron Kwok and depicting intrigue in the police force and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

In real life, the city is gripped by the tale of one woman, Ms Rebecca Li, who was ICAC's No. 2 - until she was nudged out this month, supposedly for her role in a lengthy probe of the city's leader, Mr Leung Chun Ying.

The Chief Executive is being investigated for receiving £4 million (S$7 million) from Australian firm UGL in undisclosed payments that came to light during the 2014 Occupy movement.

The controversy over Ms Li's removal has raised questions about the independence of one of Hong Kong's most crucial institutions.

Two weeks ago, the ICAC suddenly announced that Ms Li will be demoted. The 53-year-old promptly resigned.

An internal revolt ensued: Another star investigator resigned and three-quarters of ICAC staff threatened to boycott its annual dinner last Friday, forcing a last-minute postponement.

ICAC commissioner Simon Peh said Ms Li's job performance was found wanting but gave no details.

When questioned, Mr Leung stressed that he played no role in her departure.

Given the information vacuum, more rumours have arisen.

One is that she is being targeted because she had previously received training at the FBI in the United States, something anathema to Beijing and which its liaison office here has apparently objected to.

Just one year ago, Ms Li was making waves as a trail-blazer.

She had just been appointed ICAC's top graft-buster as the acting head of operations - the first woman to do so - overseeing 860 investigators.

This was after three decades at the ICAC, where she rose from an assistant investigator, earning a reputation for tenacity and awards along the way.

Some have thus surmised that her surprise removal now could be due to external political pressure.

The Democratic Party, citing insider sources, said it comes at a point when ICAC investigators and Mr Leung are tussling over documents that would show whether he had previously declared the UGL payments. Mr Leung did not respond to media questions on whether those documents have been handed over to the ICAC.

UGL, which bought Mr Leung's former company DTZ in 2011, has maintained that the £4 million was compensation for him not joining a rival for two years. But the contract also contained an "additional commitment" footnote that said he agreed to act "as a referee and an adviser from time to time". Mr Leung, who became Chief Executive in 2012, has denied any impropriety.

Democratic Party district councillor and a former ICAC investigator Lam Cheuk Ting told The Straits Times that his party believes Ms Li's departure was linked to the probe.

He said Mr Peh did not follow standard procedures, such as conducting "proper" appraisals with Ms Li before her demotion.

On what purpose removing Ms Li would serve when other ICAC investigators will take her place, he said: "She is known to be very devoted in anti-corruption efforts, respected and experienced. Yet, she was replaced suddenly without concrete reason. So it sends the message that if you want to protect your position, you have to think twice before you investigate any sensitive cases."

But not all believe the two developments are connected.

Barrister Stephen Char, a former ICAC chief investigator, said no single officer can compromise an investigation. He noted that layers of checks and balances have been built into the system: All investigations must obtain consent from the operations review committee, which includes pan-Democrat legislators , before they can be closed.

This means that removing Ms Li would not have achieved the effect of softening any investigation into Mr Leung.

But questions remain, Mr Char pointed out. He called on Mr Peh to offer more information on Ms Li's supposed unsatisfactory work.

"The commissioner must make it clear to members of the public what her serious drawback and mistake were that justified her demotion."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'Real-life story of graft-buster grips Hong Kong'. Print Edition | Subscribe