Prosecutors might go after people who aren’t poor

In Norway, if you commit 77 murders you get a 21-year (extendable) prison sentence. In Singapore, the penalty for overstaying your visa can be caning as well as jail. But at least they have reputations for being consistent. Hong Kong can’t decide whether it is namby-pamby liberal or viciously cruel. If a white tourist pulls a driver out of his taxi and steals the vehicle, he receives no real punishment; if local people want to cross the street, they get fined (‘Why not target dangerous drivers’).

The Hong Kong system seems to impose quite severe penalties for offences against property and in cases that damage Hong Kong’s reputation (such as an enterprising schoolboy selling pirated software online). Yet punishments are often surprisingly light where an identifiable victim is genuinely harmed (‘Taxi driver who killed three pedestrians’ gets three years and four months in prison).

So we shouldn’t be surprised that, if people commit an offence that has no apparent victim and allows prosecutors to pretty much presume guilt without proving that a crime took place, they will be put behind bars for three times the amount of time a deadly taxi driver gets, or half the time a Norwegian mass-murderer gets. The two cases we have recently seen involved a 22-year-old loser and a 61-year-old public housing tenant. For making multiple deposits of cash over years into bank accounts on behalf of persons unknown and unpunished, they were given 10-year prison sentences for money laundering.

This prompted pointed criticism about ‘a mockery of criminal justice’ and ‘grotesque injustice’. Such comments seem to have hit a raw nerve, since Director of Public Prosecutions Kevin Zervos not only wrote tetchily to the press in response, but is now giving interviews (here and here) proclaiming that he wants to go after criminal masterminds as well… 

But of course he can’t, because the people whose money is being laundered are outside Hong Kong’s jurisdiction. What is happening here is that Mainlanders who have acquired wealth – legally or illegally – are smuggling it out of the country contrary to Mainland, but not Hong Kong, law. Some might be relatives of national or provincial leaders who have amassed fortunes through corruption; others might be mid-ranking officials or businessmen on the take; some could be legitimate entrepreneurs who fear sequestration of assets or just want to emigrate.

It is happening in hundreds of bank branches in Hong Kong every day (why else do we have so many banks all over the place?). If you are a licensed remittance agent or money changer, you can do it with impunity. If you are a real-estate agent accepting a suitcase of cash from a Mainlander buying a Hong Kong property, you will go unpunished. If you own one of the high-rise cash laundries known as casinos in Macau, you will go free and be lauded as a visionary. If you are the bank accepting all these deposits, you are immune. But a couple of harmless dimwits performing a task barely one step up from collecting cardboard go to prison for 10 years. Leaving aside the unfairness, there is the cost of imprisonment to taxpayers of over HK$200,000 per inmate a year. And you have to ask: what else could the Director of Public Prosecutions and his staff have been doing with their time?

It is not only the 99.99% of money-launderers who are have their acts together who have nothing to fear from the Hong Kong authorities. You can run parasitical cartels that suck wealth out of the productive workers and small businesses that power most of the economy, and no-one will touch you. No-one except the magnificently irritating veteran activist Elsie Tu, who starts the countdown to her 100th birthday in June by giving Li Ka-shing a fine tongue-lashing

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14 Responses to Prosecutors might go after people who aren’t poor

  1. I was shocked to see this pronouncement from Mr Zervos, who looks like Rowan Atkinson only from certain angles.

    If a man can’t share the wealth, invest his funds, use competent solicitors to get round the law and process the squeeze in Hong Kong without fear or favour, there is no hope for me but to move to the Virgin Islands or Macau or Liechtenstein or Grand Cayman or Andorra or Monaco or Malta. Sounds good. There are bent lawyers everywhere to assist. Mr Zervos should be cleaning them up.

    Else also gave me a tongue lashing twenty years ago, in the nicest possible way, one Geordie to another. Mainlanders used to sell their babies. Now they sell real estate. That’s progress.

  2. Property Developer says:

    If an upstart place like New York can nobble the biggest institutional money launderers, at the same time dishing out hypocritical moral lessons, why can’t an autonomous state like HK?

    Jake (I think) made ths same point a while back that the law against having too much money going through your account is different from all other laws in that it blithely assumes, without needing any proof, that some other crime has been committed.

    In fact, there’s a remarkably similar crime for civil servants: having too much money full stop, where you’re similarly guilty until proven otherwise. Is it just me, or do these two seem to be very Chinese sorts of laws? (“Business is more personal.”)

  3. Stephen says:

    Is Elsie Tu having a road to Damascus? For as long as I have been here her criticism has largely been targeted at “whitey’s”. So finally in 2013 she realizes this is not the Hong Kong of the 1950’s and four Chinese families have largely carved up this town between them, cheered on by an obedient press and an impotent piss poor excuses for a Government.

    May I wish Elsie many more good years and keep the articles coming.

  4. Wealthee Chan says:

    @Property Developer

    In Thailand they call it being “unnaturally wealthy”, and it is wielded as a political weapon.

  5. Dream Bear says:

    People in this town have such short memories. In considering anything Elsie TU says its worth remembering she played such a leading role in the MacLennan case, that the 1981 Commission of Inquiry specifically commented on her credibility as a witness after she gave evidence. What was said is not flattering. In summary she was found to express opinions as facts, make statements without ascertaining if these had any factual basis, she exaggerates, she has a tendency to make serious and damaging accusations without a factual basis and she has a propensity to interpret simple and straightforward facts in the most sinister light.

    A pretty damning assessment.

  6. Real Law Breaker says:

    Good for Elsie !

    I honestly don’t know how LKS and the likes of him can sleep at night, unless they justify their actions by “increasing shareholder value”

    On the “why not target dangerous drivers” letter the SCMP, it’s a pity I was not in HK last week when there was the pedestrian road safety blitz. I’m just dying to get nabbed by an eagle-eyed traffic warden for putting one just step out of place on a red pedestrian crossing light, and then take the case to court and replay the hours of videos I have filmed of traffic wardens lazily gazing at illegally – parked cars (making sure I call all the press……….)

  7. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Dream Bear

    I just googled the MacLennan case to refresh my memory.

    Interesting reading.

    Methinks Eslie was as correct at that time about the corruption and cover-ups as she is this time about an “un-named tycoon” and the oligarchy .

  8. The Regulator says:

    A local Chinese woman Tsang Wing Yan who stole a mobile phone and cash of more than HKD1,000 from a handbag in a bar, has been told-off and let-off by Madam Justice Toh in the High Court of Hong Kong

  9. Dream Bear says:

    @Real Tax Payer.

    I’m afraid Elsie got it completely wrong on the MacLennan case. I suggest you get down the library to read the entire Commission of Inquiry report. I’ve not seen a copy on-line.

  10. pcatbar says:

    Its fair to say that 99.9 years old is a little late in life to be seeing the light on what has been the bleeding obvious for 20 years! Stick to pretending the PRC is ruled by a benevolent communist dictatorship of the proletariat and that all white people in HK (apart from you) are racist exploiters if I were you!

  11. rory says:

    You can find the summary of the MacLennan Inquiry on the lesbian gay bisexual transsexual website, together with a number of newspaper cuttings from the time. See
    I’ll go with Real Tax Payer’s conclusions.

  12. Dream Bear says:

    @Rory. Seen that already. It’s very much a partisan redaction. As I said, read the full report or your guilty like Elsie of drawing conclusions without having the facts. She was right about a lot of nasty things that went on in Hong Kong in the 1960s/1970s, but also very wrong in other instances.

  13. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Dream Bear

    I dare to venture that in the 60’s you could count whistle-blowers of the caliber of Elsie Tu on the fingers of one hand ( and I mean a hand that has has been severely chopped by triads under orders from the police)

    Not surprising if the whistling sounds were sometimes out of tune (as judged – please also bear in mind – by the somewhat dubious legal authorities of that era)

    Pity there were so few Elsies at that time

  14. No, PD, it is not a crime for civil servants to have “too much money full stop”. it is a crime for them to have more than they could reasonably have earned unless it can be explained as from other legal sources (e.g. from winning the Mark Six or selling their flat). A little harsh, perhaps, but the rule was introduced at a time when corruption in the civil service was rampant.

    As for the blitz on jaywalkers, anyone who drives in Hong Kong knows that a large percentage of the territory’s pedestrians (especially in Mongkok, for some reason), seem intent on committing suicide by walking all over the road completely oblivious to traffic. If they can do so wearing black at night to make themselves invisible, so much the better. However, i don’t think the police action will do much to instil common sense into them. I recall seeing a cop writing out a ticket to a jaywalker on a traffic island, while hordes of other people surged across the road against the lights totally ignoring them.

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