Trial of the century begins

The secret of an exciting blockbuster, a Hollywood movie mogul once supposedly said, is to start off with an earthquake and work up to a climax. David Perry QC, prosecutor in the Rafael Hui/Kwok Brothers corruption trial, certainly hit the ground running yesterday after the court finally got a jury empanelled.

The scene, as he set it, was the commotion in Hong Kong of early 2005, when rumours started flying around that tragic failure Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was to stand down for ‘health reasons’ and be replaced by his colonial-trained Chief Secretary Donald Tsang, who would bring his old buddy Rafael Hui back into government as his number-two. The two top Sun Hung Kai Properties bosses, the prosecutor says, started passing money totaling HK$17.6 million to Hui through circuitous routes; one payment of HK$4.7 million was made just hours before he was sworn in. (Lots here, here, etc.)

On the sordid subject of rumours, mutterings are currently circulating along the lines that the prosecution team are ‘quietly confident’; in the sense, that is, that ‘quietly’ means ‘bursting to tell other people’ and ‘confident’ means ‘drooling in anticipation of an overwhelming victory’. This would suggest across-the-board guilty verdicts followed by lengthy prison sentences for the two scion-tycoons and the ex-high-flying bureaucrat. That would mean the three (not to mention stooge accomplices) sleeping on canvas-covered wooden beds in cells with no air conditioning and having plain congee for breakfast, for years and years. Yum!

As well as an ascetic lifestyle they probably never considered possible, the three – long accustomed to fawning and shoe-shining – also face the prospect of utter humiliation. Other figures in the tycoon-bureaucrat milieu will surely find their own reputations, already fading in recent years, tarnished by association. Donald Tsang himself remains under suspicion for his close links in office with various second-tier property developers. And observers with long memories still wonder just how, exactly, the other big real-estate conglomerates (Henderson, New World, Hutchison/Cheung Kong, the lot) have profited hugely over the years from mysteriously advantageous discretionary decision-making by top land and planning officials.

Hong Kong came top of the Economist’s recent Crony Capitalism Index, making Russia’s government-oligarch nexus look like a bunch of amateurs. Marketwatch recently pointed out that Hong Kong’s billionaires rank up there with American tech innovators and entrepreneurs who have competed successfully to win global markets for their ideas and inventions – yet the Hong Kong plutocrats are all in real estate, and incredibly made their fortunes from a city of just seven million. The Big Lychee’s mighty have a very long way to fall.

Yet we are still surrounded by people who don’t get it or who are desperate to ensure others don’t get it. Every day brings another letter to the editor from some dimwit who swallows the idea that cuts in tourist numbers would damage, rather than liberate, our economy (today’s is from Fion of Yau Yat Chuen). Newspapers staffed by economic illiterates and owned by tycoons quote Development Secretary Paul Chan’s inanities along the lines of ‘unaffordable homes are good for you, unaffordable business rents are good for the economy’ without question. Could the sight of two Kwok brothers going down finally snap everyone out of it?

And then, there is that horrible nagging feeling that the prosecutors led by a QC from London might not have the airtight case they think they have. The Kwoks are, some are guessing, spending HK$100 million on their own lawyers (no-one knows who’s paying for Rafael Hui’s defence counsel, but everyone’s intrigued). Thomas Kwok, a devout fundamentalist Christian, gave us a Biblically accurate reproduction of Noah’s Ark out at Ma Wan, for which the Almighty might be prepared to strike a few prosecution witnesses dumb at the last minute (witness memory-loss has derailed trials of the wealthy before).

Fingers crossed.

I hear that the lack of air-conditioning in the summer is the worst bit. I believe it; I explored the old cell blocks of Victoria Prison a good couple of years after the facility closed, and you could still smell the sweat. I declare the weekend open with the wish that the prosecution team know of what they boast.


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