A Whiff of Injustice

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ANTHONY SPAETHWhat do you give a 67-year-old spinster who has everything, including a publishing empire and residences flung around the globe? If you're the Hong Kong government and the millionairess is Sally Aw Sian, you apparently give her a big legal break. Last month, three executives of Aw's Hong Kong Standard newspaper were convicted of fraud for printing and then destroying thousands of extra copies of their paper--a laborious method of boosting circulation stats and therefore ad rates. Aw was described last March as a co-conspirator in the scam, but Hong Kong authorities chose not to indict her--a decision which has ignited public outrage. The rule of law requires equality, says Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. It seems in this case that some people are more equal than others.

Last week it got worse. For months, Hong Kong's Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie had promised to explain why Aw was accorded what appeared to be special treatment. Her explanation on Thursday only convinced critics that, in fact, justice was being unevenly applied. Aw's prosecution was nixed, Leung said, partly because evidence against her was wanting and partly as a matter of public interest. Aw's companies, Leung explained, employed many people who could lose their jobs if the CEO found herself in legal jeopardy. The assumption among many in the territory is that Aw escaped indictment not only because she is a stalwart of the city's oligarchy, but also because the reclusive grand dame is an old friend of Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Aw's Sing Tao empire is crumbling under a mountain of bad debt. In December, she was forced to sell the gaudy Tiger Balm Garden, a Hong Kong tourist trap that includes the Chinese-style mansion in which she has long resided. Few locals are shedding any tears. It looks like we have two legal systems, says Martin Lee, barrister and chairman of the Democratic Party, one for the rich and one for the poor.

Legal controversies in contemporary Hong Kong usually hinge on whether the law or its enforcement is being bent to accommodate Beijing, which is apparently not the case with Aw. (Although she is a local member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the top advisory body to Beijing.) In another high profile case decided last month, a Court of Final Appeal confirmed a clause in the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, giving the right of abode to children with Hong Kong parents. Legally it was an affirmation of the territory's judicial independence; socially the decision has riled a public worried about thousands of migrants crowding an already tight job market. In today's edgy atmosphere, it seems that whether Hong Kong plays it legally straight or fast-and-loose, lends a hand to a rich dowager or gives hope to poor children on the mainland, the result is the same: public disquiet.

With reporting by Maria Cheng, Wendy Kan and Isabella Ng/Hong Kong