Politicians' wives take the fall in scandals

Wives of politicians have been taking the heat for their husbands recently, in a pattern that's become familiar well beyond Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2012, 8:27am

"I had no doubt that I could construct a satisfying life by myself and make a good living, but I hoped Bill and I could grow old together."

So wrote Hillary Clinton in her 2003 autobiography Living History when recalling the 1998 sex scandal involving her husband, then the president of the United States, and an intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Her words may strike a chord with the wives of failed chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen and beleaguered Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po, who, like Clinton, have had to pay a price for their husbands' mistakes.

When doubts were raised about the conduct of Tang and Chan, both men responded by blaming their wives. In Tang's case, it was not enough to rescue his bid to become chief executive, a campaign which began with him all but certain to win.

In Chan's case, the calls for him to step down remain as insistent as when the row about his links to a company that owned subdivided flats broke out, soon after his appointment as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's development secretary.

If Chan's family owned such flats, it could make him a beneficiary of a practice that, as development secretary, he is meant to stamp out.

But Chan claimed to know nothing about the flats, which were owned by a company controlled by his wife, Frieda Hui Po-ming.

Chan tried to distance himself from the company, Harvest Charm Development, saying he had resigned his directorship in October 1997 and it was his wife who retained a stake in the firm.

"I know my wife has properties in Tai Kok Tsui and Shanghai Street, but I have no knowledge about the leasing arrangements and details of those properties at all," he said on August 3.

With the row escalating, Hui rushed to her husband's defence.

"Chan Mo-po resigned from the directorship in 1997," she said. "He knows my family owns flats in Tai Kok Tsui and Shanghai Street for investment, but he has no knowledge about the leasing arrangements of my family's properties."

Hui's defence of her husband probably caused her less hurt than the embarrassment endured by Lisa Kuo Yu-chin, who twice found herself in the full glare of media scrutiny when attempting to rescue her husband Henry Tang's career.

On the first occasion, she stood by her man - literally - in October, when he declared to the media in the driveway of their home that he had "strayed" in his marriage. Kuo told reporters at a media briefing that she had forgiven him, a move intended to head off rumours about Tang's private life that looked set to tarnish his campaign to succeed Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as chief executive.

But the troubles kept coming. In February, after the media became aware of illegal alterations to their home in Kowloon Tong, Tang said he was not the one who should be blamed for this apparent breach of the law.

Kuo agreed it was all her fault, saying: "I'm the one responsible for the renovation and plans of the two houses, including the basement. He [Tang] knows little about the details."

She pleaded with the public to give her husband a chance and, as pressure grew on Tang to quit the race for chief executive, said: "I wanted to provide a happy and warm family home for my husband and children, like most wives do."

Tang himself offered an apology of sorts for the alterations at No7 York Road: "It was my wife's idea and I knew they were illegal. Since we were experiencing a low ebb in our marriage, I did not handle the matter swiftly. I take full responsibility for the incident."

It was too little, too late. If anything, the perception that Tang was turning his long-suffering wife into a scapegoat hastened the decline in his popularity and contributed to him losing the Election Committee vote on March 25.

Dr Helena Wong Pik-wan, chairwoman of the Democratic Party's Gender Mainstreaming Steering Group, said: "Tang's explanation was poorly received. Many people believe that a politician should be responsible for his wrongdoing. If it appears that he shuns responsibility, it will leave a bad impression."

She added: "The row over Paul Chan is like a repeat of Henry Tang's scandal. It is bad for their image. I don't know if their wives took the blame willingly, but I think the politicians themselves should have taken the responsibility. The public would not believe that they knew nothing about the problems."

Her views were echoed by Dr Luk Kit-ling, a vice-chairwoman of external affairs at the Association for the Advancement of Feminism.

"The community generally found it hard to believe that they knew nothing about it. But it needs evidence to prove that they are aware of it," said Luk, a lecturer in social sciences and cultural studies at Polytechnic University's Hong Kong Community College.

She said that the women's decision to stand by their husbands, whether based on consensus or compulsion, could have been influenced by their cultural background, in which "it is perceived that their ultimate concern is their marriage, not their career."

Luk said: "Our society doesn't care what she sacrifices. Does a woman voluntarily play the role of subordinate or has she imperceptibly been influenced? But a couple should feel comfortable in each other's company. They should support and respect each other, but it should not be the case that one acts as the other's subordinate."

The "scapegoat" phenomenon, she noted, was not a recent development, but it was less well-known in the past because fewer scandals were on public display.

"There needs to be a change in the public's perceptions," Luk said. "Increasing awareness among women is also necessary. They should not hold the view that they must sacrifice."

Chinese University sociology professor Ting Kwok-fai said a partnership made sacrifices understandable: "In many cases, a couple will not be focused on individual interests but integrated ones. When one is in troubled waters, his or her partner will give a helping hand.

"It is positive. It happens in both Western and Chinese families. As in Paul Chan's scandal, the couple is in the same boat and his wife can't keep herself out of the mess.

"Traditionally, a wife does not play a financially significant role in the family, so it seems natural that she would sacrifice her reputation to protect her husband for the sake of the family. It will depend on which side can bring more interests to the family."

He said that as women's independence has grown, they may be less willing to be a scapegoat, since they have their own pride and interests to protect. However, he said that a scapegoat role for the wife in a crisis was more likely if the husband enjoyed a higher social status, as is the case in the Tang and Chan families.

As Ting observed, there was not much difference between the East and the West in this respect.

"[Former first lady] Clinton looks rather independent. But since her husband was the president [at that time], it would do no good for the family should she drag him down," he said.

"They would have had to move out of the White House. Their daughter could no longer be the first daughter; their dog could not be the pet of the first family. Many other things would have been affected."

Clinton, now the US Secretary of State, points out in her book: "As his wife, I wanted to wring Bill's neck. But he was not only my husband, he was also my president, and I thought that, in spite of everything, Bill led America and the world in a way that I continued to support."

Calling her husband's betrayal "the most devastating, shocking and hurtful experience of my life", Clinton admitted that to remain married to him was one of "the most difficult decisions I have made in my life".

Ting said it may have been different if Clinton's husband held a more lowly position.

In 2008, then-US senator John Edwards admitted an extramarital affair with an aide, Rielle Hunter, but denied he was the father of her baby girl. Edwards confessed in January 2010 that he fathered Hunter's daughter; soon afterwards he and his wife, Elizabeth, separated. She died in December 2010 after a six-year battle with breast cancer.

It was rare, Ting said, for the wife not to forgive her husband, particularly in Asia.

In many people's minds, a marriage is based on love, faith and mutual understanding.

To wives of politicians who have strayed into controversy, it could also be a test of endurance and forgiveness.

None of us is perfect. Married to an imperfect man, Hillary Clinton asserted: "Life moved on, and I moved with it."