The State v. Big Spender

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ANTHONY SPAETHThere is no shortage of people in Hong Kong who throw vast sums of money around. So for Cheung Tze-keung to merit the nickname Big Spender, he must be something special. Legend has it that Cheung once dropped $12 million in a single session at a casino in Cambodia. A security-van heist in 1991 netted him $22 million in bundled cash--and that's just what's in the police report. He owns 11 luxury cars, including a Lamborghini. Other activities--including daytime jewelry-store robberies, arms smuggling and even murder--have made him Hong Kong's Most Wanted criminal.Until last month, however, few outside the underworld knew the full extent of Big Spender's criminal genius. According to mainland Chinese authorities, Cheung has confessed to not one but two spectacular kidnappings, in 1996 and 1997. One victim was Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, 34-year-old son of one of Hong Kong's richest billionaires, Li Ka-shing. The other was property tycoon Walter Kwok Ping-sheung, 47, whose father is chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties. They were virtually perfect crimes: the families never reported the kidnappings to the police. Both victims were released safely after ransoms were delivered. The payoffs are destined for the record books: $70 million for Kwok; $134 million for Li. A truck pulled up outside Li's house and remained for two days as the money was loaded.Having successfully eluded Hong Kong's criminal justice system for decades--he was arrested and jailed for the 1991 security-van caper but freed on a technicality--Big Spender is in big trouble in China. In the southern city of Guangzhou, he is being prosecuted in a trial closed to the public and most of the press on charges that haven't been disclosed. The trial has proceeded swiftly, as is customary in China; a guilty verdict generally being the norm. Judging from Chinese press reports, digging by Hong Kong journalists and statements from Cheung's lawyer Ivan Tang Yiu-wing, it appears Big Spender has been charged with masterminding illegal arms dealing in China and, along with 35 buddies (18 of them Hong Kong residents), with the two kidnappings and other crimes committed in Hong Kong, even though it remains a separate legal jurisdiction.That twist has turned an already juicy crime story into a considerable legal controversy. Hong Kong's separate judiciary forms the core of the One Country, Two Systems policy that made possible reunification with the mainland last year. If Hong Kongers start getting prosecuted in China for crimes committed in their own territory, the two systems become indistinguishable. Chinese authorities must understand they have no jurisdiction over Hong Kong crimes, insists Law Yuk Kai, director of Hong Kong's Human Rights Monitor.PAGE 1  |  
 
Even more troubling is suspicion that Cheung is being prosecuted in China precisely because of its swifter courts and tougher justice. (Hong Kong does not have the death penalty, for example; China does.) The kidnapping victims' families, who have good connections in Beijing, have been conspicuously uncooperative with Hong Kong police. Chief Secretary Anson Chan, the territory's top civil servant, has called their attitude deplorable. Hong Kong authorities, meanwhile, haven't charged Cheung with kidnapping (claiming that without any formal reports from the victims, there is insufficient evidence to mount a criminal case) or requested his extradition from Guangzhou. Hong Kong journalists, who have engaged in an orgy of reporting and speculation about the case, note that Chinese President Jiang Zemin railed against crime in a celebrated speech in Hong Kong last July; three weeks later, Beijing announced Big Spender's arrest. China argues that the kidnappings were planned on Chinese soil, possibly in one of Cheung's 50 properties there.The irony is that for decades Cheung used the Hong Kong-China border as his personal shield. His most lucrative crimes were carried out on the richer southern side, despite its efficient police and courts. For escape and refuge, the looser law-and-order climate on the Chinese side suited him well. His chronic escapes from justice gave him a folk-hero reputation for invincibility. But since the trial began Oct. 21, the public has been deluged with details of unverifiable exploits. Cheung was said, for example, to have been working closely with Yip Kai-foon, a notorious robber. And some have alleged there was a plan to kidnap Chief Secretary Chan late last year--a crime that would have seriously jolted Hong Kong. The kidnappings of Li and Kwok had already rattled the territory's super-rich, many of whom have hired expensive bodyguards and security firms.Cheung has two lawyers: one familiar with the Chinese system and another brought in from Hong Kong. Says the latter, Tang: The Hong Kong legal system has surrendered to the China legal system. If true, that's bad for his client. Big Spender has already spent three months in a Chinese jail; if the past is any indicator, a guilty verdict will be followed swiftly by a death sentence, normally a bullet in the head.Reported by Maria Cheng/Hong Kong and Isabella Ng/Guangzhou  |  2