The arrest by US authorities of one of Hong Kong’s top former officials, Patrick Ho, could become the highest-profile corruption case involving China’s One Belt One Road development initiative.
Ho, 68, was arrested in New York last weekend, standing accused of leading a multi-million dollar bribery scheme in Africa on behalf of a company. If convicted, he faces 20 years in jail.
Who is Patrick Ho?
Ho was often affectionately nicknamed “Fat Ping” by Hong Kong media. An ophthalmologist by trade, Ho studied in the US and returned to Hong Kong in 1984 to teach medicine. He famously treated top Chinese leader Ji Pengfei’s cataracts in 1989 and entered politics soon afterwards. He became a member Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference national committee in 1993.
In 2001, after Hong Kong’s 1997 Handover, Ho helped campaign for then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa before becoming a top official himself. His tenure ran from 2002 to 2007. He was well known for receiving the worst possible result at Hong Kong’s traditional bamboo slip fortune telling ceremony in 2003. It was the year that the SARS epidemic hit and Hong Kong erupted in mass protests against the legislation of a national security law. Following that, government officials no longer conducted the ceremony – they were replaced with rural leaders.
What did he do?
After his term ended in 2007, Ho retired from Hong Kong politics, and started participating in so-called civil diplomacy for the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In an interview this June, Ho said that Hongkongers have an advantage in their ability to deal with foreigners: “So I can tell them stories about China in the hopes of improving our country’s soft power.”
Ho received several titles at the United Nations. In July 2014, he became a member of the Secretary-General’s high-level advisory group on sustainable transport. In March last year, he was appointed as a member of the multi stakeholder advisory group of internet governance forum, also advising the Secretary-General.
What are the details of the corruption case?
Chinese firm CEFC China Energy funds the Hong Kong-based NGO China Energy Fund Committee, which Ho led. The NGO is also based in Virginia in the US, and it had obtained “special consultative status” at the UN Economic and Social Council.
The US Department of Justice complaint did not specify the names of the relevant banks, but said some of the alleged deals were arranged in the halls of the United Nations.
In a scheme to bribe the president of Chad, Ho was accused of facilitating a total of US$400,000 (HK$3.12 million) to be wired from a Hong Kong bank account in March and July 2015, through a bank in New York, then to an account in Dubai designated by Cheikh Gadio, a former Senegalese top diplomat acting as a middleman.
He was also accused of facilitating the firm to offer a US$2 million (HK$15.62 million) bribe to the president of Chad in exchange for securing business advantages for the company.
In another scheme to bribe the Ugandan president and its foreign minister Sam Kutesa – who at the time was president of UN’s General Assembly – Ho was accused of making arrangements for a payment of US$500,000 (HK$3.9 million). It was wired from a Hong Kong bank account, through a bank in New York, to an account in Uganda in May 2016.
The complaint included more than 40 pages of email correspondence excerpts between the related people, including confidential exchanges.
Who is behind the company?
CEFC China Energy is chaired by Ye Jianming, 40, a Chinese oil tycoon with a mysterious family background. Ye is also the chairman of the NGO China Energy Fund Committee.
Ye is the co-owner of Carrier Capital (Hong Kong) Limited with Maggie Ip, granddaughter of Chinese Communist general Ye Jianying.
Ye Jianming was named as the sole political consultant for Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing New People’s Party. He was also a special consultant for the Maritime Silk Road Society, which is led by the party’s lawmaker Regina Ip. Ip said on Tuesday that she was not familiar with Ye: “I only met him once or twice, I knew him because of the One Belt One Road initiative. He never attended events of New People’s Party and he was not a member.”
Mak Kwok-wah, a former assistant director of the government Information Services Department, was a deputy-chairman of Ho’s NGO. Mak helped with former chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s election campaign in 2012, and is now a director of the Hong Kong United Foundation, an organisation closely linked to Leung.
Andrew Lo, ex-Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa’s trusted aide, is the NGO’s deputy-secretary-general.
How did people react?
Ho’s website and the English website of the China Energy Fund Committee have been shut down with notices posted that they are “currently under maintenance.” But the NGO’s Chinese website is still accessible.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said he had noticed the reports but he did not have any information about the situation. He added that China has always encouraged Chinese companies to operate legally in foreign countries.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who was Ho’s subordinate at the Home Affairs Bureau, t0ld reporters on Tuesday that she only heard about Ho’s arrest when she read the news: “I have nothing to comment.”
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung also offered no comment: “He has left the government for a very long time.”
Hong Kong media published overviews of Ho’s life, focusing on when Ho became an honorary chairman of the Integrity of Public Officials Concern Group last year, which targeted the integrity of lawmakers who were said to have received “dirty money.” His wife, Taiwanese actress Sibelle Hu, also joined the group.
Ho said at the group’s launching ceremony: “If people don’t trust you, how do you work on things? So integrity is very important. Not only public officials, I believe everyone should have integrity.”
A staff member at his NGO told reporters outside its Wan Chai office that he had not seen Ho for days.