Ho conspiracy theorists out of line

Editorial | 23 Nov 2017

The arrest of Hong Kong's former home affairs minister in New York for allegedly bribing African officials to secure oil fields for a mainland conglomerate is a perfect cocktail of curiosities.

Patrick Ho Chi-ping is famous in celebrity circles. His fall into the legal dragnet revealed a less known aspect of him that he's been actively involved in lobby missions.

The bribery and money- laundering charges he faces could land him up in the hoosegow for up to 20 years.

The US Department of Justice accuses him and a former Senegalese diplomat of breaching the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which applies to all US businesses and nationals or firms trading securities in America, wherever the corrupt acts affect.

Foreign firms and individuals involved in corrupt payments while in the United States have been indicted since 1998.

The charges allege the bribes paid to the Chad president and Ugandan foreign minister were wired through New York's banking system.

Ho is fighting to clear his name, which is set to be a lengthy and tormenting process. But unless proven otherwise, he should be presumed innocent.

The case has opened up a reservoir of conspiracy theories, of which the most captivating must be the one suggesting Ho's arrest serves as a warning by Washington to Beijing over the latter's ambitions over in Africa - in light of the immense oil and national mineral reserves under that continent.

Uganda, for example, is estimated to have huge oil reserves of 6.5 billion barrels that could have made the country one of the world's richest nations, if it hadn't been plagued by political instability and corruption at different levels of government.

Chad is similarly rich in oil, but the country is wracked by continuous civil wars.

It's tempting to link the action against Ho to some geopolitical conspiracy framework.

The charges don't name the Shanghai-based conglomerate for which Ho is said to have been acting. But CEFC China Energy, which owns vast oil-related assets in different parts of the world, and its fully-funded non-government organization China Energy Fund Committee - based in the SAR - immediately distanced themselves from Ho.

They maintain that whatever Ho may have been up to overseas has nothing to do with them.

A quick review of previous cases handled by the Americans under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act shows conspiracy theorists have probably read too much into this latest incident.

Ever since the legislation was enacted, it has accumulated a very long list of cases involving many international companies from across various continents.

In 2008, the US Department of Justice's probe and charges against German conglomerate Siemens for violating the act resulted in a fine of US$450 million (HK$3.51 billion).

In 2012, Marubeni Corporation of Japan paid US$54.6 million in penalty for violations. And in 2015, US multinational Goodyear Tire and Rubber shelled out more than US$16 million to settle charges in relation to activities of its African subsidiaries.

That Ho's arrest is related to the Sino-US rivalry in Africa appears far-fetched.

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