Kwoks In The Dock, But Hong Kong Won't Change

Photo by SeanPavonePhoto/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by SeanPavonePhoto/iStock / Getty Images

Does the conviction of Thomas Kwok on corruption charges mark the beginning of the end of the dominance of Hong Kong by its tycoons? Despite the ardent hopes of the territory’s pro-democracy campaigners, almost certainly not.

For decades Hong Kong’s citizens have grumbled about corruption and sharp practice by the business families who control much of the economy there, and the inability or reluctance of the authorities to do anything about it. As ever, the closeness of prosecutors, politicians and tycoons is part of the problem.

So seeing Thomas and Raymond Kwok - the co-chairmen of real estate group Sun Hung Kai who are said to have a combined wealth of $21bn - in the dock was sensational. Thomas was found guilty of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, after letting an official he was negotiating with stay rent-free in a luxury flat.

He was cleared of two other charges, while his brother was cleared of all charges. Thomas faces a maximum of seven years in prison.

It is tempting to connect this story to the barricades and tear-gas recently seen on Hong Kong’s streets and see the seeds of change. But that would be wrong for three reasons.

One, it is far more accurate to view the Kwok affair as part of the broader Chinese crack-down on graft than part of a local story.

Two, the Party doesn’t want to rock the boat in Hong Kong. Even if it finds some of the tycoons distasteful, it knows that they are better as allies than enemies. Many of them are immigrants from the mainland with business interests in their birthplaces which the Party doesn’t want to disrupt. 

And three, while it is true that Hong Kong has more than its fair share of of tycoons, most other places are also influenced by wealthy, well-connected families. Hong Kong's buccaneering self-made billionaires have a higher profile than most, but that's the only difference. They aren't going to vanish overnight.

If Hong Kong's big hitters think twice about bribing officials after this, then all the better, but even if they restrict their activities to legal ones Hong Kong's tycoons will still dominate the territory. One prosecution will not undo the work of decades.