By Chris Yeung –
Less than one month after being given a pat on her back from President Xi Jiping for having made a good start since taking office on July 1, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is confronted with a serious political crisis erupted even before her newly-appointed justice chief was sworn in on Saturday.
Before Teresa Cheng Yuek-wah sat down in her office in the Justice Department on Saturday, she was struck by media reports about a scandal over illegal structures found in her house in Tuen Mun. Similar additional structures were identified by local media in a home next to hers. They include a basement, a rooftop glass house and a garden pool.
Cheng held a hastily-arranged press conference in the afternoon, offering an apology for “any inconvenience caused by this incident.” “I admit I could have done better in being alert in this respect.”
As if the saga has not been juicy enough, she revealed Otto Poon Lok-to, a leading engineer who owned the villa next to hers, is her husband. He has also admitted lack of vigilance over the additional structures in his home.
Cheng has kept mum after she apologised on Saturday. Mrs Lam, the Chief Executive, has issued a statement via her office on the same day, saying Cheng had informed her of the matter on Friday afternoon and that Cheng was advised to give an open account as soon as possible to allay public concern. Mrs Lam has sought to distance from the scandal over the weekend.
CS diverts attention
On Sunday, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung has pledged to review the effectiveness of integrity check system for principal officials. He called on the public to give Cheng more time to settle the matter.
Executive Council members and lawmakers from the pro-establishment camp made mild criticism against Cheng over her lack of political sensitivity.
Their attempts to shift public attention on Cheng’s lack of sensitivity and the effectiveness of integrity check, however, are not likely to put doubts on her credibility to rest in the wake of the scandal.
Serious questions have and will be asked about whether she was indeed aware of the existence of illegal structures in her home when she bought it in 2008.
Documents obtained by local media relating to the property deal showed she had either inspected or authorised other persons to inspect the home.
Cheng did not categorically say whether she was or was not aware of the additional structures when she signed the agreement.
With the string of controversies surrounding the illegal structures found in former chief executive Leung Chun-ying and some of his principal officials still vivid in the minds of people, revelation about illegal structures at Cheng’s home was greeted by disbelief.
It raises serious questions about the government’s integrity check system and the political sensitivity, or the lack of it, of the Carrie Lam team. The lack of vigilance, or perhaps more accurately, the failure of the new team to learn from the mistake of the Leung team is indefensible.
It is not difficult to understand why pro-establishment figures have moved to define Cheng’s problem as a case of lack of political sensitivity. Doing so could help defuse criticism on a far more important respect, namely credibility.
Credibility the burning issue
Nevertheless, her credibility has and will be mired in doubt if she fails to categorically deny she was aware of the additional structures when she bought the home.
Doubters and cynics have good reason to believe she knew her home has additional structures not found in the original house layout.
That she was not alert to the legal and political risk then is not difficult to understand. This is because of the simple truth that the additional structure would have been no big deal if she stays in private practice with limited public limelight caused by her public service.
It has become one now that she carries the official title, namely Secretary for Justice. That the government’s top lawyer is found to have breached the Building Ordinance is not just embarrassing, but dealing a body blow to her credibility and trustworthiness.
Insisting she has nothing more to add, Cheng is clearly hoping to cool down the row as soon as possible. While trying to divert public attention onto the issue of integrity check, top officials are anxiously keen to lower the political temperature to help ease the pressure on Cheng.
Coming in the midst of a bitter row over the joint checkpoint plan over the high-speed rail link, it looks certain the pro-democracy camp will give neither kindness nor benefit of doubt to Cheng. She looks set to face side attack on her credibility while defending the co-location arrangement when the bill goes to the Legislative Council.
Battered by the pro-establishment camp with the backing of the Government over the amendment of Legco’s Rules and Procedures, the pan-democrats will capitalise on the Cheng case to strike back.
Both Cheng and the Chief Executive are likely to have to pay dearly for their forgetfulness of the importance of being “whiter than white” for anyone who brave the heat to join the “hot kitchen.”
Chris Yeung, Chief Writer of newly-launched CitizenNews, is founder and editor of the Voice of Hong Kong website. He is a veteran journalist formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes on Greater China issues.
Photo: GIS picture