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Hong Kong property developer's market value drops $4.9 billion in one day

Thomas and Raymond Kwok, two brothers who control Sun Kai Properties, the second largest property company in the world, were arrested by Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption Thursday, scandalizing the city. NBC's Ed Flanagan reports.

BEIJING – If you’ve ever been to Hong Kong, you’ve undoubtedly walked by a building built or managed by Sun Hung Kai Properties, the second largest property company in the world and one of the small number of prominent developers that control real estate in this land-scarce region.

To say that the Kwok family, which controls Sun Hung Kai, has played a part in constructing Hong Kong’s iconic skyline would be massive understatement. Three of the tallest buildings in the city were constructed by the firm as well as one of the region’s more surreal icons, a replica of Noah’s Ark which doubles as a hotel and theme park. (The Kwoks are evangelical Christians.)

So when news broke that the company’s co-chairmen, Thomas and Raymond Kwok, were arrested on Thursday by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), it caused an uproar that has scandalized the city of 7 million and caused the firm’s stock to tumble.

Make that plummet. 

In trading Friday on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Sun Hung Kai’s stock price plunged 13 percent, for a loss of $4.9 billion in market value.  

It was easily the company’s worst loss on the market in 14 years, according to Bloomberg News.

Though no charges were publicly announced and the Kwok brothers were released late Thursday evening, their arrest at the same time as the reported detention of Rafael Hui, the number two in the Hong Kong government from 2005-2007, has some speculating that the arrests were related.

If so, the arrests one again underscore the tight relationship between Hong Kong’s government and local property developers, both of whom are in a perpetual race to keep up with the housing demands in the world’s most densely populated city.

Mercurial rise not without its issues
With estimated holdings of $18.3 billion, the Kwok family is the 27th wealthiest family in the world, according to Forbes Magazine. Their company, which was founded in 1963 by family patriarch, Kwok Tak Seng, has risen to prominence by breaking into every facet of the property business, from residential to hotels to industrial development.

Bobby Yip / Reuters

Thomas Kwok (R) and his younger brother Raymond Kwok, both Vice Chairman & Managing Director of Sun Hung Kai Properties, listen to a question during a news conference announcing the company's interim results in Hong Kong in this March 11, 2009 file photo.

By the end of 2011, Sun Hung Kai was reported to have a land bank of 46.7 million square feet of gross floor area either completed or in development. The group also owns 26 million square feet of farmland in Hong Kong’s New Territories that is in the process of receiving planning permission to be converted to building land. 

That translates into an astounding amount of property under Sun Hung Kai’s control in a city where land is extremely precious. 

The company and the family have also long been in the spotlight in Hong Kong. When the family patriarch died in 1990, he left the reins to his eldest son Walter, who became chairman and chief executive. In 1997, Walter was kidnapped and held for a week before his family paid a ransom of more than $77 million to have him released.

Walter returned to the company after his release, but eventually the family relationship unraveled when Thomas and Raymond Kwok dethroned Walter in 2008.

With the support of their mother, the two brothers charged Walter with being unfit to run the business and after a nasty struggle, eventually took over. Thomas, 60, runs the construction of new developments and Raymond, 58, is in charge of the company’s finances.  

Are Hong Kong’s business and political interests too close?
The arrest of the Kwok brothers and Rafael Hui by the ICAC comes at a time when Hong Kong is dealing with a number of incidents that bring into question just how transparent and corruption-free the former British colony is today.

On the face of it, the city has a good reputation. The Heritage Foundation calls Hong Kong the world’s freest economy while Transparency International calls it the 12th least corrupt country and/or territory in the world. (The United States came out 10th and 24th respectively.)

But the relationship between real-estate developers and the government has long been a source of simmering tensions in the crowded city. Opposition leaders and some social groups have long criticized the cozy relationship between the government and the developers.

Thousands took to the streets in March to demand that the city’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang quit after he was  was accused of accepting invitations for lavish yacht dinners and private jet trips from local businessmen.

In elections for the city’s next chief executive just last weekend, the winner Leung Chung-ying, campaigned on a platform of providing more low-income housing in the city. 

Some argue that the Kwok scandal is the next in a storyline of business and government blurring together too closely. However, the fact that the ICAC went ahead with this investigation suggests that for the present time at least, the mechanisms in place to deter and uncover corruption are still strong in Hong Kong.

Where this investigation goes from here will go a long way towards determining whether this latest crisis of faith in Hong Kong is the next step in a gradual erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and financial freedom or one that rights it once and for all.