The arrest of Patrick Ho Chi-ping – a former senior government official in Hong Kong – in the United States for suspected bribery has not only shocked the political community in Hong Kong. It may also trigger a diplomatic issue between China and the US.
Ho, a former Secretary for Home Affairs who left office in 2007, was arrested in New York on the weekend along with Senegalese Foreign Minister Cheikh Gadio for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, plus international money laundering and conspiracy, according to the United States Justice Department.
He has been charged by the United States for bribes allegedly paid to two countries in Africa on behalf of CEFC China Energy, a rising China oil company.
It was alleged that Ho, executive vice-chairman of CEFC Hong Kong Non-Governmental Fund Committee, which is a fully-owned unit of CEFC China Energy, offered a US$2 million bribe to the president of Chad “to obtain valuable oil rights” without international competition.
The 68-year-old former eye surgeon could face up to 20 years in jail in what could be the biggest international corruption scandal involving an HKSAR government official.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong media were busily searching for information about the case and anxious to see if anything is related to former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who is vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
According to the CEFC Hong Kong Non-Governmental Fund Committee’s website, Andrew Lo Cheung-on, who had been Tung’s special assistant between 1997 and 2005, is a deputy secretary-general of the NGO. Lo was dubbed as one of Tung’s most trusted colleagues, as he had worked in Orient Overseas (International) Ltd, Tung’s family business, since 1976 before he entered government service.
If Tung is in any way linked to Ho’s case, the entire issue will become diplomatic as the CPPCC vice-chairman is regarded as a “leader” in China’s political system. It is too early for speculation but US investigators will definitely dig deeper into the matter.
As the Shanghai-based CEFC China Energy is an active participant in the Belt and Road Initiative, Ho’s arrest has already caused a major embarrassment to the huge development strategy, which promotes economic co-operation among countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
Founded by Ye Jianming in 2002, CEFC China Energy invested US$9 billion for a 14% stake in Russian state-owned oil firm Rosneft in September.
A Fortune 500 energy and finance conglomerate, it is also one of China’s biggest investors in central Europe. It recorded 263 billion yuan (US$38 billion) in revenue in 2015 and had 30,000 employees.
The firm set up a China Energy Fund Committee, a think-tank registered and anchored in Hong Kong, devoted to public diplomacy, with special emphasis on energy and culture.
In June, Ho, on behalf of CEFC, spoke in United Nation’s first-ever Ocean Conference and pledged that China would support the fisheries industry along the belt and road route for the sustainability of ocean resources.
In minds of many Hong Kongers, Ho is all about bad luck. In 2003, when Ho took office as the Secretary for Home Affairs, he visited Che Kung Temple and drew divination sticks on behalf of Hong Kong. Ho got an unlucky stick titled “bad things may happen”. Within several months, more than 300 people died in an outburst of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).
The bad economy also spurred 500,000 protestors to rally on July 1 in the same year, eventually forcing Tung to step down as Chief Executive in 2005.
That’s why people wonder if Ho will bring bad luck to Tung again this time.