Even before mainland Chinese authorities executed Cheung Tze-keung today, his case had already stirred a roaring public debate among lawyers and judicial authorities in Hong Kong.
On Nov. 12, a court in Guangzhou, capital of the mainland province bordering Hong Kong, sentenced Cheung, a.k.a. "The Big Spender," and four accomplices to die at the hands of the state for crimes that included the kidnapping of two Hong Kong tycoons.
Cheung's appeal was denied early today, and a short time later he and his four accomplices were executed, according to the official New China News Agency.
This was not big news in China, where capital punishment is routine. According to Amnesty International, China last year executed 1,876 people, more than the rest of the world combined.
However, Hong Kong has no death sentence. Some of the crimes that Cheung allegedly committed were in Hong Kong, although the mainland authorities say they were partly planned in China. To some in the Hong Kong legal community, the case represents a dangerous precedent that challenges the independence of the Hong Kong criminal justice system.
For these and other reasons, the news that "Big Spender" Cheung was dead reverberated most loudly in Hong Kong, where local newspapers today printed front-page stories about his last, tearful visit with his two small sons and detailed preparations for his execution in Guangzhou.
"A crime--that of kidnapping certain Hong Kong tycoons--allegedly committed in Hong Kong by some Hong Kong residents [was] tried in the Guangzhou court," said Margaret Ng, a barrister who represents the legal profession in the Hong Kong Legislative Council. "Is it surprising that Hong Kong people are alarmed and ask how is this permissible?"
Ng argues that the case amounts to improper mainland interference in the territory--which, under terms of the Basic Law agreement that governed its transfer from former colonial ruler Britain to China, is supposed to enjoy autonomy in all matters not involving national defense and foreign affairs until 2047.
However, as details surrounding the case surfaced in Chinese court documents during and after the trial, questions have also been raised about the actions of some of Hong Kong's most prominent citizens, who may have helped steer the case out of the territory and into the much harsher and more secretive mainland court system.
This raises the question, posed by Hong Kong journalist Stephen Vines, of how deeply committed certain powerful members of the Hong Kong business elite are to the civil society and rule of law they inherited from the British.
"There is a sense of amorality hovering over this elite, which also helps to explain its lack of civic-mindedness," Vines wrote in his recent book, "Hong Kong: China's New Colony."
At the center of the case are two kidnappings alleged to have been committed in 1996 and 1997 by Cheung--who reportedly gained his nickname because of his profligate gambling habit--and his Kowloon-based gang.
In May 1996, the gang allegedly kidnapped Victor Li, son of Hong Kong's richest man, property magnate Li Ka-shing. After one day, the elder Li reportedly paid the equivalent of $138 million--the biggest ransom on record anywhere in the world--for the return of his son.
A second kidnapping occurred in September 1997, when the Cheung gang allegedly seized another property billionaire, Walter Kwok, and held him until his family paid a ransom amounting to $77 million.
Both kidnappings took place in Hong Kong territory. At the time, rumors about them circulated wildly on the streets of the city. However, neither the Li family, which had former Hong Kong Police Commissioner Li Kwan-ha on its payroll as a security advisor, nor the Kwok family filed a report with police. And without a formal complaint, authorities said, they were helpless to do anything about the crimes.
In a meeting with reporters last month, Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip said "very senior officials" had pleaded with the kidnapping victims to report the crimes. When they refused to do so, citing concern for the safety of their families, Cheung and his gang were allowed to remain at large, spending money lavishly and doing little to hide the illicit source of their new fortunes.
Cheung reportedly even boasted that he planned to kidnap members of Hong Kong's 10 richest families. Such reports caused wealthy residents to hire squads of bodyguards, often bristling with weapons.
But although the victims and their families refused to cooperate with officials, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported Nov. 26 that the Guangzhou court case was based on written statements from "two unidentified victims who did not appear in the hearing to 'protect their privacy.' "
This fueled speculation here that the Li and Kwok families, seeking revenge for the kidnappings but not wishing to expose themselves to the glare of a public trial in Hong Kong, instead took the case to the much more opaque mainland criminal justice system, where a conviction would almost inevitably lead to the death penalty.
The first hint that the Beijing regime intended to become involved in the case came in July, when, during a speech celebrating the anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the mainland, Chinese President Jiang Zemin called for a crackdown on Hong Kong criminal gangs. Later that month, Cheung and his gang, who up to that point had been able to travel with impunity into and out of China, were arrested in Shenzhen, just across from Hong Kong.
After their trial opened in October, the Hong Kong government reacted to criticism by saying that the mainland jurisdiction was justified because the charges included crimes that had been committed on the mainland, among them the planning of the kidnappings.
Moreover, officials argued that Hong Kong was unable to ask that the defendants be returned to the territory for trial because there was no agreement between the two governments covering the extradition of criminals.
Finally, the Hong Kong authorities said some of the blame for the Big Spender flap rests with the prominent victims, who failed to perform their civic duty and report the crimes. Had the kidnappings been reported here, the officials said, there would never have been a reason for the mainland to step into the case.
"There is a very strong moral obligation for citizens to report crimes," Secretary for Security Ip repeated last month. She called the failure to report the kidnappings "highly deplorable."
Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan, the territory's highest-ranking bureaucrat, and Police Commissioner Eddie Hui Ki-on have joined in condemning the victims' failure to report the crimes.
For his part, Li Ka-shing said he has "a clear conscience about my character and about my feelings toward Hong Kong and the motherland."
Although he recently refused to talk about the case when cornered by reporters at a function for one of his corporations, Li, who once served as honorary chairman of a police association, insisted that he is second to none in his support of law enforcement in Hong Kong.