Hong Kong’s once-revered Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is in a shambles—its independence widely questioned and its own practices now perceived to be corrupt.

The abrupt sacking of the commission’s head of investigations last week, followed days later by the resignation of one of its top investigators, is just the latest episode in an ongoing saga of decadence and decline.

And for ICAC chief Simon Peh Yun-lu and his underlings to stand before a sea of microphones and reporters and pretend that the removal of the acting head of the agency’s investigative unit, Rebecca Li Bo-lan, and the subsequent departure of one of its most respected senior investigators, Dale Ko, is just another round of ordinary business only serves to underscore this increasingly obvious truth: The institution, founded in 1974, that transformed what was then a graft-infested city into one of the cleanest places on the planet has lost its way in the mire of post-handover Hong Kong politics.

ICAC. File

Mum may be the word on the fates of Li and Ko among current staff at the ICAC, but former investigators have been quick to step forward to express their shock and dismay.

Long regarded as a high-flyer in the organisation, Li, 54, has taken part in a number of high-profile investigations and in 2000 was the first investigator chosen for special training by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.

Two years later, she was promoted to chief investigation officer and, within another two years, had become assistant director of investigations. In 2007, Li received the ICAC medal for distinguished service. In 2010, she was named director of operations for investigations in the private sector, where—by all accounts—she continued to do stellar work.

Rebecca Li Bo-lan. Photo: ICAC.

Thus, no one was surprised when Li was named the first woman to head the investigative arm of the commission. She took over last July 17 as acting director of operations from the retiring Ryan Wong Sai-chiu. Less than a year later, she has been removed by Peh, who by way of explanation would only say: “In my appraisal, Li failed to meet the job requirements, so I terminated her acting capacity. It is my own judgment.”

Peh maintains that he made the move to oust Li entirely on his own without any consultation with Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, or anyone representing the central government. Given the investigative power and significance of the position, however, Peh’s claim is simply not credible in post-handover Hong Kong.

Surely, the chief executive would want his voice to be heard before a decision of this magnitude was made, especially since the person taking over for Li will be deciding whether or not to pursue a probe into the shady HK$50 million payment Leung received in two instalments—one just before he became chief executive and one a year later— from the Australian firm UGL Limited. And it’s simply inconceivable that officials in Beijing would not weigh in on this decision.

For now, Ricky Yau Shu-chun, who previously held Li’s former post as chief of investigations for the private sector, will take over as acting director of operations. Probably, the job is his to keep.

Ricky Yau Shu-chun

The news that, after her ouster, Li has chosen to leave the ICAC altogether—and that Ko is following her out the door—is also telling. Clearly, there were clashes, intrigue and lots of politics at play behind closed doors at the ICAC. Indeed, apparently the drama was so thick that no one is allowed to speak publicly about it with anything approaching candour or honesty.

Thus, Peh’s announcement that Li, who during her 32-year ICAC tenure has consistently exceeded expectations while also building a reputation for rock-hard integrity, is suddenly an underperforming washout while no explanation at all is offered for Ko’s resignation.

The ICAC was once respected worldwide for the remarkable work it did to purge what had been Hong Kong’s notoriously corrupt police department and civil service, but now it appears the agency, like just about everything else in Hong Kong, has become politicised in the ongoing war between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing forces in the city.

The trouble didn’t start with Peh. His predecessor, Timothy Tong Hin-ming, is remembered chiefly for his frequent all-expenses-paid junkets to the mainland during his time as commissioner and for breaking the ICAC bank with lavish spending on gifts, entertainment, food and liquor for Chinese officials visiting Hong Kong. For his excesses in spending and remarkably poor judgment, Tong received a slap on the wrist from Hong Kong’s justice department and a hefty pension from the ICAC.

Timothy Tong Hin-ming. File

Peh, a career bureaucrat and former director of immigration with zero background in criminal investigations, hardly inspired confidence when he was appointed commissioner in 2012. Until last week, however, despite some hiccups, the ICAC was recapturing some its lost prestige under Peh’s watch, which has seen a former chief secretary, Rafael Hui Si-yan, jailed for taking bribes and one of the city’s richest property tycoons, Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong, also jailed for giving them to him. A similar charge hangs over the head of former chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, whose trial begins next January.

Criminal prosecution of such high-level figures is unprecedented in Hong Kong. True, the investigations involved in these cases began before Peh assumed office, but they concluded during his time and send an all-important signal to the world that the rule of law is still alive and kicking here.

The events of the last week, however, have once again shaken public faith in the ICAC and revived old fears that the agency’s independence has been compromised and that politics rather than principle is influencing decisions about leadership and sapping its investigatory zeal.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.