Raymond Kwok (left) and Thomas Kwok, co-chairmen of Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd.
Raymond Kwok (left) and Thomas Kwok, co-chairmen of Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd. (Photo by Jerome Favre)

Over the past few years, Hong Kong’s once widely admired property magnates have come under increasing fire as symbols of the Asian financial capital’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity. Widespread “antitycoon” sentiment played a major role in the 2012 election of the territory’s current chief executive and continues to find frequent expression in the local media and in street protests like the Occupy Central rallies planned for July.

So it’s probably not the ideal time for two of Hong Kong’s richest tycoons to be going on trial for allegedly bribing a top government official.

But that is what will be happening in less than two weeks, when Hong Kong’s largest corruption trial ever kicks off on May 8. Thomas and Raymond Kwok, the billionaire brothers and cochairmen of Sun Hung Kai Properties, are facing charges that they provided payments and loans to Rafael Hui, the former No. 2 official in Hong Kong, in exchange for undisclosed favors. Two other men, former Sun Hung Kai board member Thomas Chan and ex-banker Francis Kwan, have also been charged in the matter.

The defendants are being represented by a slew of top lawyers from Hong Kong and London. Hui is being advised by solicitor Ben Wong and barrister Edwin Choy. Thomas Kwok has two firms acting for him—Davis Polk & Wardwell and Boase Cohen & Collins—and two barristers—Lawrence Lok SC and Clare Montgomery QC. Raymond Kwok is being represented by the firm Sit Fung Kwong & Shum instructing barristers John Kelsey-Fry QC and Gerard McCoy SC. Chan has retained the firm of Tsang, Chan & Wong and barristers Ian Winter QC and Daniel Marash SC. Kwan’s lawyers are solicitor Joseph Chan and Barrister Charles Chan.

But will antitycoon sentiment find its way into the jury box?

Many observers doubt that feelings are running quite so high that the Kwoks, who are believed to be worth nearly $20 billion, and the other defendants can’t get a fair trial.

“There is some of that [antitycoon sentiment], but I think it cuts both ways,” says Simon Young, a law professor at Hong Kong University. “There is still a segment of the population that admires [tycoons] and will accept their views. And then there is growing group that will be more skeptical.”

The tycoons dominate the Hong Kong economy in ways that it are often difficult for foreigners to understand. Aside from property, their family-run conglomerates also control the leading retail and restaurant chains, the major mobile carriers and several other big businesses. Over the last three decades, they have also greatly expanded their business holdings and dealings outside of Hong Kong, especially in mainland China.

Some tycoons, including Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man with a fortune estimated at over $30 billion, come from humble origins and have therefore been hailed by many as role models for success. But the soaring price of property—Hong Kong has some of the highest commercial and residential real estate costs on the planet, putting owning a home out of reach of many—and the perception that the tycoons are closely aligned with the authoritarian government in Beijing has contributed to some souring of their public image in recent years.

Criminal defense lawyer Andrew Powner, managing partner of Hong Kong litigation firm Haldanes, who is not involved in the case, says he doesn’t think the current political environment is going to be a major factor in the Kwok case.

“I’ve got great faith in the integrity of Hong Kong juries,” says Powner. “In most of the major cases I’ve observed, they listen very closely and often come back with extremely detailed questions about the evidence.”

Faith is perhaps more of a requirement in dealing with jurors in Hong Kong than, say, the United States. Potential jurors on big cases in America have typically already filled out a detailed questionnaire designed to elicit their views on certain issues before they are subjected to even more questions by lawyers during voir dire. In contrast, Hong Kong lawyers have almost no information about their potential jurors, seven of whom form a typical panel.

“All we have is a name and a number,” says Powner. “We don’t know anything about their socioeconomic backgrounds.”

While there is no voir dire, the judge does ask individual jury candidates a set of questions agreed upon beforehand by prosecutors and defense lawyers. These are usually designed to remove from the pool those who know the defendants personally or may have a direct economic interest in the trial’s outcome.

But Powner says he cannot think of an instance in which these questions inquired into potential jurors’ social or political views. There have been occasions, he notes, when potential jurors claimed outrageous views in order to be excused. In one well-known incident, a man was excused from the jury in the initial trial of convicted murderer Nancy Kissel after he said he would be unable to remain neutral because the Kissel family was Jewish and he was biased against Jews.

Young says jurors’ views of the case usually change dramatically once they are instructed on the law and begin hearing evidence, and that may especially be the case in the Kwok case, where many details have yet to be made public.

“The public doesn’t really know much about the allegations,” he says. “It’ll be a case where the evidence drives the thinking of the jury.”

Young notes that the laws the Kwoks and Hui are charged with violating are more complicated than they sound. “Once the jury starts to hear the case, they are going to realize that the laws of bribery and misconduct in public office are not so straightforward.”

Finding a jury that can literally understand the complexities of the case could prove a challenge. The trial will be conducted in English, one of Hong Kong’s two official languages. According to a 2012 census, English is spoken as a second language by 46 percent of Hong Kong’s roughly 7 million people, but fluency varies widely.

Young says it will be hard to empanel a jury that speaks English well enough to follow the evidence, and that such a jury would most likely be drawn from the territory’s more well-educated residents. “It necessarily limits your pool to begin with,” he says, “but that’s the historic reality for Hong Kong.”

Peter Yuen, a Hong Kong disputes partner with Shanghai’s Fangda Partners, says he doesn’t think antitycoon sentiment will prevent tycoons from getting fair trials. But he thinks tycoons are definitely more vulnerable than they have been historically.

“Hong Kong traditionally was a place where old money was looked after,” he says. “But the regulatory environment is changing globally. Gone are the days when people were hesitant to take on big families and big names.”

Email: alin@alm.com.