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Execution in China Raises Concerns in Hong Kong

Law: Alleged crimes occurred in territory, which has no death penalty. Elites' commitment to justice is questioned.


HONG KONG — Even before mainland Chinese authorities executed Cheung Tze-keung today, his case had already stirred a roaring public debate among lawyers and judicial authorities in Hong Kong.

On Nov. 12, a court in Guangzhou, capital of the mainland province bordering Hong Kong, sentenced Cheung, a.k.a. "The Big Spender," and four accomplices to die at the hands of the state for crimes that included the kidnapping of two Hong Kong tycoons.

Cheung's appeal was denied early today, and a short time later he and his four accomplices were executed, according to the official New China News Agency.

This was not big news in China, where capital punishment is routine. According to Amnesty International, China last year executed 1,876 people, more than the rest of the world combined.

However, Hong Kong has no death sentence. Some of the crimes that Cheung allegedly committed were in Hong Kong, although the mainland authorities say they were partly planned in China. To some in the Hong Kong legal community, the case represents a dangerous precedent that challenges the independence of the Hong Kong criminal justice system.

For these and other reasons, the news that "Big Spender" Cheung was dead reverberated most loudly in Hong Kong, where local newspapers today printed front-page stories about his last, tearful visit with his two small sons and detailed preparations for his execution in Guangzhou.

"A crime--that of kidnapping certain Hong Kong tycoons--allegedly committed in Hong Kong by some Hong Kong residents [was] tried in the Guangzhou court," said Margaret Ng, a barrister who represents the legal profession in the Hong Kong Legislative Council. "Is it surprising that Hong Kong people are alarmed and ask how is this permissible?"

Ng argues that the case amounts to improper mainland interference in the territory--which, under terms of the Basic Law agreement that governed its transfer from former colonial ruler Britain to China, is supposed to enjoy autonomy in all matters not involving national defense and foreign affairs until 2047.

However, as details surrounding the case surfaced in Chinese court documents during and after the trial, questions have also been raised about the actions of some of Hong Kong's most prominent citizens, who may have helped steer the case out of the territory and into the much harsher and more secretive mainland court system.

This raises the question, posed by Hong Kong journalist Stephen Vines, of how deeply committed certain powerful members of the Hong Kong business elite are to the civil society and rule of law they inherited from the British.

"There is a sense of amorality hovering over this elite, which also helps to explain its lack of civic-mindedness," Vines wrote in his recent book, "Hong Kong: China's New Colony."

At the center of the case are two kidnappings alleged to have been committed in 1996 and 1997 by Cheung--who reportedly gained his nickname because of his profligate gambling habit--and his Kowloon-based gang.

In May 1996, the gang allegedly kidnapped Victor Li, son of Hong Kong's richest man, property magnate Li Ka-shing. After one day, the elder Li reportedly paid the equivalent of $138 million--the biggest ransom on record anywhere in the world--for the return of his son.

A second kidnapping occurred in September 1997, when the Cheung gang allegedly seized another property billionaire, Walter Kwok, and held him until his family paid a ransom amounting to $77 million.

Both kidnappings took place in Hong Kong territory. At the time, rumors about them circulated wildly on the streets of the city. However, neither the Li family, which had former Hong Kong Police Commissioner Li Kwan-ha on its payroll as a security advisor, nor the Kwok family filed a report with police. And without a formal complaint, authorities said, they were helpless to do anything about the crimes.

In a meeting with reporters last month, Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip said "very senior officials" had pleaded with the kidnapping victims to report the crimes. When they refused to do so, citing concern for the safety of their families, Cheung and his gang were allowed to remain at large, spending money lavishly and doing little to hide the illicit source of their new fortunes.

Cheung reportedly even boasted that he planned to kidnap members of Hong Kong's 10 richest families. Such reports caused wealthy residents to hire squads of bodyguards, often bristling with weapons.

But although the victims and their families refused to cooperate with officials, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported Nov. 26 that the Guangzhou court case was based on written statements from "two unidentified victims who did not appear in the hearing to 'protect their privacy.' "

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