A student has brought a judicial review challenge against the University of Hong Kong’s governing council after it dismissed complaints about an electoral bribery scandal.

Filing the legal challenge to the High Court on Monday, HKU law student Michael Mo said: “This ridiculous university’s governing body has made a university running on Hong Kong taxpayers’ money no longer prioritise the interests of Hongkongers.”

Campaign posters of Zhu Ke (left) and Michael Mo (right). Photo: Zhu Ke/Michael Mo, via Facebook.

Last October, Mo accused his opponent and mainland student Printa Zhu Ke of buying votes from his classmates during the campus election of a postgraduate student representative to serve on the HKU Council.

Mo received tip-offs from two students who gave him screenshots that allegedly showed Zhu sending out his campaign details and distributing virtual red packets containing money to his classmates via the messaging app WeChat.

In some screenshots, after Zhu posted his campaign poster and red packet in a group chat, several members told him that they had voted and one asked for the link to vote online.

Responding to complaints, Zhu said that the money was to reimburse those who had helped with campaign promotion. He uploaded screenshots of his red packet account, which showed that the amounts transacted were all below RMB2.

Red packet screenshots. Photo: Zhu Ke via Facebook.

Mo reported the case to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), but the anti-graft body said it did not have jurisdiction over the allegation.

He also filed a complaint to the HKU Council, which decided not to open an investigation on the basis that the amount – totalling RMB80 – given out by Zhu was “immaterial.” Zhu, who represented the postgraduate student body on the Council last year, was re-elected into HKU’s top governing body following the dismissal of the complaint.

The Council’s decision to dismiss the case without a full investigation sparked a public outcry. Groups representing HKU students, staff and alumni slammed the decision for being “unreasonable and inappropriate.”

“The University should not tolerate any acts that disregard the electoral principles of fairness and honesty,” the groups said in a joint statement last October.

In an interview with online news outlet Initium, Zhu said Hongkongers do not understand China’s virtual red packet culture, which he said is a game designed for “lightening the mood” and receivers “do not have to accept” the packets. He said he did not have any intention to buy votes.

University of Hong Kong main building. Photo: HKU

But critics argued that cultural differences should not be an excuse, especially since any acts of bribery – including perceived ones – have a corrosive effect on the electoral system.

Although Hong Kong laws do not draw a line on what constitutes a bribe in terms of monetary value, an ICAC-drafted document for new immigrants said that “advantage is not defined by any amount” and a HK$20 red packet is considered an advantage.

But barrister Chris Ng of the Progressive Lawyers Group previously told HKFP that Zhu may have a strong defense for two reasons: first, Hong Kong’s ordinances do not cover this type of alleged bribery. Second, there are common law cases in which a gift of insignificant value was considered not capable of “influencing” voters, thereby failing to establish the act of bribery.

However, Ng said that even if a conduct is permissible by law, it may not be morally acceptable. “Zhu was lucky this time, but this kind of behaviour should not be encouraged,” he said.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.