Who's really to blame for any 'transfer of benefit'?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2012, 12:00am


Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's cosy ties with tycoons have drawn a huge public outcry. One incident of alleged misconduct now under intense public scrutiny is the use of a private aircraft owned by mainland property tycoon Cheung Chung-kiu, also known as Zhang Songqiao, on a Phuket holiday.

Legislators and the public have stepped up their efforts to try to find out whether there was any transfer of benefits because of their close association.

At this stage, we cannot ascertain whether any transfer of benefits took place. But, on a related matter, it would appear that benefits were offered a few years ago to Cheung by the Development Bureau, which is responsible for urban planning and development.

In 2007, the bureau allowed Stephen Yow Mok-shing to sell the historical King Yin Lei mansion for HK$430million - well below its market value - to a private owner. The deal was signed by the managing director of Cheung's Y.T. Realty Group, signalling that Cheung was behind the deal.

When the case came to light, it created a huge public uproar, prompting the deal to be scrapped. At the time, the owner was in the process of demolishing the mansion for redevelopment.

In an unprecedented move, the government approved a land exchange proposal in order to preserve and revitalise the building. Under the land swap, the owner surrendered the site to the government in exchange for an adjacent site of the same size for private development.

The official responsible was Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, a well-regarded principal official who has been highly praised by Tsang for her combatant quality.

When the mansion was put up for tender in 2004, the asking price was HK$500million. The property initially attracted a lot of interest from local developers. The proposed sale also drew the attention of the Conservancy Association, a strong advocate of preserving Hong Kong heritage, and its campaign to save King Yin Lei generated widespread public debate and scared off many local developers.

When it was revealed later that a private owner had bought the mansion and was demolishing it for redevelopment, public opposition intensified. As the demolition threat made headlines, politically savvy Lam swiftly declared the property a proposed monument and saved it from the wrecking ball, winning much applause.

On the surface, it seemed Lam averted a crisis. But the facts tell a different story.

Lam first pointed the finger at then secretary for home affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping, blaming him for not being sensitive to the significance of the issue by failing to notice a letter sent by the owner to the government offering to explore ways to save the building.

First, the letter was reportedly a message of congratulations to Tsang for his chief executive appointment, and the owner merely took the opportunity to request a meeting with the government to discuss conservation issues.

Moreover, it was also unfair of Lam to shift the blame to Ho because she was serving under him as permanent secretary when the letter was sent to the government.

Under Lam's land-exchange plan, the owner was handsomely 'compensated'. The land exchange granted to the developer a man-made slope of the same size adjacent to the mansion. The lot, which was originally marked as a green zone, was rezoned for residential use. To make the deal more attractive, the Development Bureau granted permission to build five blocks of flats, after asking for an additional land premium of just HK$58million.

Facts speak louder than words. Lam's seemingly swift action to resolve the King Yin Lei controversy benefited the developer, whose destruction of the historic building prompted public pressure to force the government to act. Lam damaged the government's reputation. Most unforgiveable was that she rewarded bad behaviour. She must change her ways.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk