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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A CASE OF (MIS)JUDGMENT?

What Leung calls public interest may not be


Editorial Cool heads wanted

Right of Abode "One Country, Two Systems" under fire

THIS IS THE STORY of two powerful women, Hong Kong's top legal officer and one of its more famous publishing tycoons, caught in controversy. It involves almost all of the big issues of our time: corruption, privilege, transparency, public interest, international perception, justice. It is a cautionary tale, one in which there seems to be different rules for the rich than for everyone else.

The main character is Elsie Leung Oi-sie, Hong Kong's justice secretary, a well-respected, 59-year-old civil servant. Her foil is Sally Aw Sian, 67, the Tiger Balm heiress and well-connected newspaper proprietor. We pick up the story in March 1998, when three executives at one of Aw's newspapers, the Hong Kong Standard, were charged with inflating circulation figures (in order to charge advertisers higher rates). Aw was named a co-conspirator, but was not brought to trial.

Leung was not required to explain her judgment, though she promised she would once the trial concluded. That day came in late January when the three executives were convicted, fined and sentenced to jail. Not long after, Leung appeared before the Legislative Council to clarify her decision. The justice secretary said that "at no point was any consideration given to the political or personal status of Aw Sian." Leung said that there simply was not sufficient evidence to prosecute Aw. But then she went on to say that she had also considered the "public interest." The justice secretary believed that if Aw faced trial, her already ailing publishing company, Sing Tao Holdings, might collapse. People would lose their jobs. And, she said, "the failure of a well-established important media group at that time could have sent a very bad message to the international community."

But the real message, "whether intended or not, is that people are not being treated equally under the law," says Clive Grossman of the Hong Kong Bar Association. "People who are wealthy or well-connected are treated better." Public interest is one thing, and guidelines exist for what can be considered. This seemed to be something else, namely political expediency. As Yash Ghai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, says: "What Leung considered relevant, isn't."

It is not at all certain, to start with, that Aw's prosecution would have hurt Sing Tao. She has let the company drift in recent years and has been trying to sell some or all of her 50% stake. The sooner the better for the company, analysts say. Meanwhile, the chairman of Hong Kong's ATV network, Lim Por-yen, has been charged with corruption in Taiwan. ATV is still on air. South Korea's chaebol bosses were prosecuted, even though they have a far greater impact on the economy and employment than Aw does.

Tales of justice and privilege could be told about colonial Hong Kong. And Leung didn't have to explain herself. Once she did, the plot thickened. She seemed to misunderstand a fundamental legal principle and so laid low confidence in the government's commitment to impartiality. "There can be no trial runs for the justice secretary," says legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee. She will introduce a motion of no-confidence March 10.

- By Susan Berfield/Hong Kong


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