The headquarters of the Independent Commission Against Corruption looms over a narrow street in Hong Kong’s North Point neighbourhood, the building’s facade emblazoned with the organization’s iconic red logo: a square of four Chinese characters promising “clean government.”
For decades after the ICAC’s founding in 1974, it was the pride of Hong Kong, renowned both locally and regionally for stamping out previously endemic corruption in the civil service and the police. The commission’s efforts helped transform the then-British colony into one of the cleanest economies in Asia, setting the stage for its emergence as a financial powerhouse.
Throughout the ICAC’s history, its investigators have not shied away from high-profile targets, taking on police superintendents, mobsters, major businesses and even a former Hong Kong chief executive. But the commission’s reputation is increasingly shaky now that it has conducted a series of investigations that seem more motivated by politics than by any desire to stamp out graft.
On Monday, the ICAC announced it was investigating Cantopop star Anthony Wong over a performance he gave in 2018 at an election rally for pro-democracy politician Au Nok-hin. Both men were accused of “engaging in corrupt conduct.”
“At the rally, Wong performed two songs on stage,” an ICAC spokesperson said in a statement. “At the end of the performance, he appealed to the participants of the rally to vote for Au at the election.”
Mr. Au reported both the performance and a video of it he shared on social media as election advertisements, but the ICAC said that, nevertheless, “providing others with refreshments and entertainment at an election is a corrupt conduct and a serious offence.”
According to the South China Morning Post, both opposition and pro-government candidates have used performers in election rallies in the past, without facing any charges. On Thursday, prosecutors agreed to suspend the case in exchange for slapping both Mr. Au and Mr. Wong with a bind-over order, under which they must avoid further offences for 18 months.
This week’s charges are the latest move by the ICAC against prominent pro-democracy figures regarding events that took place years ago. Last month, the organization charged Benny Tai, one of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, and two others, over advertisements that ran during an election in 2016.
The ads promoted a tactical voting scheme drawn up by Mr. Tai and designed to boost the chances of pro-democracy candidates winning a majority in the city’s partly elected legislature – an almost impossible task that they fell well short of. ICAC prosecutors claimed the notices Mr. Tai and the two other defendants paid to place in newspapers constituted an illegal election expense, as none of the trio were registered candidates.
Before these latest charges, both Mr. Tai and Mr. Au were already facing lengthy jail terms in cases brought against them under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which has been used by the Chinese government for a sweeping crackdown against the opposition since it was imposed on the city by Beijing last year.
The new powers granted to police and prosecutors under the security law have not stopped them from taking advantage of older legislation. Multiple people have been charged under a colonial-era sedition act, and the ICAC’s moves suggest a concerted effort to re-examine previous elections for potentially prosecutable behaviour.
“While it is within the ICAC’s remit to investigate alleged corruption, the cases against Benny Tai and Anthony Wong do come across as primarily about their politics rather than about strictly corruption charges,” said Steve Tsang, a historian and director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. “For the ICAC to focus in a high-profile manner on cases which are fairly widely seen as primarily political cannot but damage the credibility of the ICAC as an institution in Hong Kong. This is a most regrettable development.”
An ICAC spokesperson said the commission “would not respond to unfounded accusations” when asked about the suggestion that recent investigations were politically motivated.
“Regardless of the background, status and position of the persons involved, the ICAC investigates all cases in a fair and just manner,” the spokesperson said, adding that it is “not appropriate for the ICAC to make any comments on the two cases in view of the ongoing legal proceedings.”
Alvin Cheung, a barrister and expert on Hong Kong’s legal system, said the politicization of the ICAC – which though officially autonomous is overseen by a government-appointed commissioner – has been an ongoing process, dating back to at least the early 2010s.
One of the most prominent examples of apparent political pressure affecting an investigation came in 2016, when three-decade ICAC veteran Rebecca Li was ousted as head of the commission’s investigative unit. Ms. Li had been overseeing a probe into Leung Chun-ying, then Hong Kong’s chief executive, who was accused of failing to declare up to $6-million owed him by an Australian engineering firm when he took up the city’s top job.
At the time, Mr. Leung denied any impropriety and said he had no role in Ms. Li’s dismissal. Both the ICAC and Hong Kong’s Department of Justice dropped cases against Mr. Leung in 2018.
Dr. Cheung said the scandal resulting from Ms. Li’s ouster “badly damaged the ICAC’s credibility” with many in Hong Kong, a trend that has continued as the organization has targeted pro-democracy figures for investigation.
When it comes to the recent cases, Dr. Cheung said, “the outside world [may finally be] starting to catch on to what people inside Hong Kong have known for years.”
Or, to put it “less charitably,” he added, “the perversion of institutions is now so blatant that there are no longer any respectable excuses to pretend otherwise.”
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