Paul Chan row should not overshadow needed housing project
Dogged by controversy, development chief Paul Chan Mo-po must be relieved to find himself still in the job. Weeks into a fresh conflict-of-interest furore, the pressure on Chan to step down appears to have eased, at least for now. He conceded he was "clumsy" when explaining whether he and his family had benefited from owning land within the new town project he steers, but he stopped short of admitting fault. The chief executive apparently threw his weight behind Chan again, despite two previous fiascos, one involving ownership of subdivided flats and the other drink-driving allegations. His political assistant is also accused of having an interest in the project and resigned yesterday.
Regardless of Chan's fate, the northeast development is a project that Hong Kong has to get on with. The HK$120 billion development blueprint was raised long before Chan took the helm last July. It will be home for nearly 175,000 residents by 2031, along with other public facilities.
The project is controversial, involving complex issues such as land use, planning, compensation and development rights. So when the embattled minister was accused of having a conflict of interest in the project he spearheads, not only was it a bombshell for the Leung team, it also provided ammunition for those trying to kill the plan.
So far there is no proof of any rules being broken. Chan said he alerted the chief executive in October about the land held by a company co-owned by his wife. She then sold her company shares to her brother, although critics say the transaction was dubious. Chan has shrugged off accusations of having a conflict of interest. Unfortunately, in the world of politics, perception overrides evidence. Although the land was bought before the project was first announced, the rise in the land premium over the years gives the impression of financial gain.
Chan's integrity and the development are separate matters, yet there is a danger people will lose sight of the need to push ahead with the project. The development is in Hong Kong's long-term interest. It would be wrong to scuttle it just because the minister in charge is perceived to have had an advantage.
Whether Chan has weathered the storm remains unclear. But if the government is determined to keep him as the chief salesperson for the project, it can expect strong resistance from residents. It is imperative the minister regain people's trust and get them behind the new town development.