Hong Kong leader under pressure to explain Australian windfall

Hong Kong`s embattled leader faced growing calls Thursday to explain why he kept large payments from an Australian company secret as democracy activists behind days of mass rallies vowed a "new wave" of civil disobedience.

Parts of the vital financial hub have been paralysed for more than a week by demonstrations calling for Beijing to grant the former British colony full democracy and for the city`s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign.

Under plans unveiled by China in August, Hong Kongers will be able to vote for Leung`s successor in 2017, but only two to three vetted candidates will be allowed to stand. 

Although protester numbers have dwindled in recent days, small groups still control multiple barricade across the city in what has become the most concerted challenge to Beijing`s rule since Hong Kong`s handover in 1997.

Pressure intensified on Leung dramatically Thursday with opposition leaders saying he faced a "huge integrity problem" over his failure to declare payments made to him by Australian engineering company UGL.

Australia`s Fairfax Media reported Wednesday that Leung received two payments totalling HK$50 million ($6.5 million) from UGL during a deal struck in December 2011 -- months before Leung took office, but a week after he announced his candidacy. 

At the time UGL was purchasing the insolvent property services firm DTZ, where Leung was a director and chairman of its regional operations.

It agreed to pay Leung over the next two years not to compete with them, and the contract signed by him showed he agreed to act as an "adviser from time to time".

Opposition lawmakers Thursday expressed their dismay that Leung did not declare the payments to the Hong Kong public once he became leader in July 2012."It boils down to a huge integrity problem," pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told AFP. "Can you imagine Obama being a consultant of some company while being a political leader?"

Another lawmaker, Cyd Ho urged Hong Kong`s parliament to investigate the payments and called on Leung to explain himself publicly.

"He should have cut himself off all business affiliations. This time it`s a very serious case. A statement cannot explain away all the queries from the public," she said.

The revelation comes as Chinese president Xi Jinping launches a widespread anti-graft crackdown and austerity drive targeting party officials.

Leung has yet to comment publicly on the affair but his office has said he was under no legal obligation to declare the earnings. 

In statements to the media, Leung`s office said he "has not provided any service to UGL after signing the above agreement" and would only have stayed on as an advisor had he lost his election bid. 

UGL said its payments to Leung were staggered after he took office to ensure his "non-compete and non-poach" obligations were met.

The furore comes as student leaders pushing for greater democratic rights are due to meet Leung`s deputy Carrie Lam on Friday for crunch talks. 

However Occupy Central, one of the main protest networks, said Thursday afternoon a "new wave of civil disobedience" would be announced by all groups involved, raising doubts over whether the talks will go ahead. They are due to hold a press conference at 5pm (0900 GMT).

One pro-democracy lawmaker said on his Facebook account his colleagues in the city`s parliament had decided to block any attempts by the government to make new appointments or initiate public works. 

"We will use this power we have to support the students` determination," Lee Cheuk-yan he wrote. 

Until now the city`s pro-democracy lawmakers have largely taken a back seat during the protests, providing moral support but no direct action in the city`s legislature. 

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