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Gangland Trial Steals Headlines in Hong Kong

Territory is awash with press coverage of drama that inspired a movie script. Case also raises issue of judicial independence from mainland.


HONG KONG — It has all the elements of a great Hong Kong action movie:

* A daring gangster nicknamed "Big Spender" who kidnaps the son of one of the world's richest men, then brazenly shows up at the tycoon's Deep Water Bay mansion to collect the $100-million ransom.

* Loyal henchmen with monikers like "Cunning Old Fox" and "Tall Guy Seven" who stage daylight jewelry store robberies and escape in a spray of automatic-weapons fire.

* A beautiful girlfriend who braves arrest to attend her lover's trial.

If you add to that a bubbling political controversy that throws into question Hong Kong's judicial independence from its mainland China overlords, then the ongoing crime-land saga of "Big Spender" Cheung Tze-keung is just about perfect for this town.

Until his arrest in China this summer, Cheung, 44, was Hong Kong's most wanted man, charged with armed robbery, gun-running, explosives smuggling and terrorist attacks on Hong Kong prison officials.

But his most notorious acts were the alleged 1996 kidnappings of two extremely wealthy men, property magnate Walter Kwok and Victor Li, son of billionaire Li Ka-shing. Until recently, the kidnappings were not officially confirmed because neither Kwok nor the Lis reported them.

Like others in the Hong Kong underworld, Cheung and his gang apparently were able to move freely in and out of the mainland, where they took refuge when things got too hot for them here.

In fact, according to reports by Cheung Lap, a respected columnist for the Hong Kong Economic Journal, "Big Spender"--whose nickname is derived from his reported penchant for high-stakes gambling--enjoyed close relations with Communist Party, government and police officials Guangdong province on the mainland.

When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Hong Kong in July, on the anniversary of the territory's return to mainland rule, he gave a speech calling for a crackdown on Hong Kong criminal gangs.

At the time, the comments seemed like a curious non sequitur. But later in the month, Cheung and 17 alleged gang members were arrested in Shenzhen, the special mainland manufacturing zone just across the border from Hong Kong.

The subsequent trial, which began last week, has produced a flood of coverage in the Hong Kong press, particularly after the mainland judge confirmed that, in addition to the other crimes, Cheung and his gang were being tried for the kidnappings of Kwok and Li.

Daily front page stories in nearly all the newspapers detail how Cheung plotted to kidnap 10 of Hong Kong's richest and most influential citizens, how he locked kidnap victims Kwok and Li in a small wooden box and fed them rations of roasted pork and rice, and how he personally showed up at the tycoons' homes and waited calmly for the ransom to be paid.

The romantic element was added this week when Cheung's common-law wife, mother of two of his children, showed up in Guangzhou to attend the trial. Her presence, swooned one newspaper, "transformed the alleged crime boss into a lovelorn husband."

However, the trial also has raised serious concerns in the Hong Kong legal community, which fears that the case sets a dangerous precedent for Hong Kong crimes being adjudicated in harsher and more secretive Chinese courts.

More worrisome, however, is the concern that the principle of "one country, two systems" that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a degree of autonomy after the end of British rule is compromised when crimes committed in Hong Kong are tried in mainland courts.

Picking up on this theme, the young Guangzhou lawyer who is representing Cheung argued that the trial should have been held in Hong Kong. Formal hearings ended Wednesday, with appeals and sentencing expected.

Naturally, a tale like this has proved too tempting for Hong Kong's filmmakers to resist. Moving quickly even before the trial began, director Andy Ng Yiu-kuen threw together a movie titled "Operation Billionaires" based closely on "Big Spender" and the alleged kidnappings.

Ng said his movie has benefited as a kind of product tie-in to the trial, with attendance in the theaters boosted by each day's headlines.

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