How MTR-gate has damaged Anthony Cheung's rock-solid reputation
As the late Freddie Mercury of Queen sang, another one bites the dust. Anthony Cheung Bing-leung was supposed to be the sure thing, the man with the right academic and public service records, that rare public figure with a pan-democratic background whom Beijing could trust.
But MTR-gate now looks set to dent Cheung's rock-solid reputation, perhaps irreparably. It appears the transport and housing chief knew about a possible delay with the MTR's massive HK$67 billion high-speed railway linking Hong Kong with Guangzhou as early as last November. Yet he feigned surprise when the rail operator finally revealed last month that the delay would be at least two years, until 2017. Hitherto one of the few policy secretaries from within the troubled Leung Chun-ying administration who enjoyed a degree of public confidence, he could face the media without provoking too much hostility. Not any more.
The bureau claims it was ready to disclose the delay to lawmakers late last year but was asked by MTR chief executive Jay Walder not to do so. Cheung said he wanted to give the MTR "the benefit of the doubt" as some senior engineers were optimistic that any delays would be minor. Could Cheung really have been so naive? Surely he must have realised he would be dragged down with the MTR when people learned about his prior knowledge, as we do now.
To compound his bad judgment, his bureau helped secure the appointment of Professor Lee Chack-fan, a former University of Hong Kong pro-vice-chancellor, to head a panel to investigate the delays. Lee promptly resigned after it was revealed he was an independent non-executive director of Paul Y Engineering, a key contractor for MTR's troubled West Kowloon terminus. Two top MTR managers have quit over the delay. But a few pan-democratic lawmakers are calling for more heads to roll, including Walder's, and are threatening to invoke Legco's special powers to investigate.
There's no need for the pan-dems to waste time grandstanding. We already know this massive project was compromised from the start and the delays now looked inevitable, regardless of when and whether Cheung knew about it. Let's just hope there won't be further delays down the road.