Updated: 05/08/2014 05:40 | By Agence France-Presse

Hong Kong property moguls on trial in huge graft case

Billionaire Hong Kong property tycoons Thomas and Raymond Kwok will go on trial Thursday in a blockbuster corruption case that analysts say could lift the lid on cosy ties between officials and wealthy moguls.

Hong Kong property moguls on trial in huge graft case

Chairmans and Managing Directors of Sun Hung Kai Properties Raymond Kwok (L) and Thomas Kwok in Hong Kong on April 3, 2012 - by Aaron Tam

The brothers, who jointly chair development giant Sun Hung Kai Properties, and Hong Kong's former chief secretary Rafael Hui, were arrested in a major swoop by the city's anti-graft watchdog in March 2012.

The Kwoks, aged 62 and 60, were accused of bribing Hui, who once held the second-highest position in the southern Chinese territory's government.

The case is set to grip the former British colony -- where sky-high property prices have fuelled discontent in recent years -- and renew concerns over the links between property developers and officials. 

"This case will reinforce the public perception that the Hong Kong government has been vulnerable to the possible influence of the capitalist class," Sonny Lo, head of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education told AFP.

The proceedings will shine a spotlight on the culture of "guanxi", or personal connections, which is long entrenched in Chinese business culture, analysts said.

"Sometimes there's a fine line between corruption and guanxi," Tanrich Securities vice president Jackson Wong said.

The Kwoks, ranked fourth on the Forbes Hong Kong 2014 rich list, have estimated family wealth of US$17.5 billion. 

The pair and Hui were among five people charged with eight offences related to payments, unsecured loans, and provision of rent-free apartments amounting to HK$34 million ($4.38 million). All have pleaded not guilty.

The others are another Sun Hung Kai director, Thomas Chan, and Francis Kwan, the former non-executive director of New Environmental Energy Holdings, an investment company.

The case has shocked Hong Kong, where Sun Hung Kai is the biggest property developer by market capitalisation and owns some of the city's most iconic real estate.

Hong Kong is seen as relatively graft-free -- it was ranked the joint 15th cleanest country or territory in 2013 by global corruption watchdog Transparency International.

The trial, which is expected to last 70 days at the city's High Court, will see a cast of prominent British lawyers in action.

Clare Montgomery, who represented the Swedish government when it requested the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from Britain, will be representing the elder Kwok, a source told AFP.

John Kelsey-Fry, who successfully defended British footballer Steven Gerrard during a court case over a bar brawl in 2009, will be representing Raymond. Another London lawyer, Ian Winter, is to represent Thomas Chan.

Former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang ended his term in disgrace in June 2012 after admitting to accepting gifts from tycoons in the form of trips on luxury yachts and private jets.

And Hong Kong billionaire Joseph Lau was in March found guilty of bribing a former minister in the gambling enclave of Macau in an attempt to purchase a prime development site in the former Portuguese colony.

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