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…