Carrie Lam

Barry Cheung held in the highest regard, before the downfall of HKMEx

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 4:33pm

He was once named the best public servant by the government's No 2 official, but until Saturday the public knew little about Barry Cheung Chun-yuen.

"He is not even one of the best. He is the best," Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told a Chinese-language newspaper in an interview three years ago.

Lam, then development chief, was reviewing urban renewal strategy with Cheung, chairman of the Urban Renewal Authority (URA). Their similar working style - both are relatively open-minded and capable of delivering on policies - made the comment unsurprising.

Cheung has been involved in a vast range of public services, from advising on civil servants' salaries to the city's long-term development strategy.

But he was seldom in the spotlight until the weekend, when the Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange, which he founded, was forced to give up its trading licence and became the subject of a police investigation over allegations of fraud.

Cheung, who grew up in the pro-Taiwan enclave of Tiu Keng Leng, received his tertiary education in mathematics in the United States, and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Hired by the global management consulting firm McKinsey, he became involved in MTR and new airport projects, which paved his way into politics. In his early 30s he was appointed as a full-time adviser to the colonial government's think tank, the Central Policy Unit, where he worked from 1993 to 1994.

His establishment of the HKMEx in 2008, two years before it was awarded its trading licence, was seen as a breakthrough in the commodities-trading business in Hong Kong. It was also a natural progression from his role from 2004 to 2008 as chief executive and deputy chairman of Titan Petrochemicals Group, which provides a trading platform as well as oil logistics services.

The HKMEx received international attention when Cheung became chairman of the world's largest aluminium producer, Rusal, in March last year. The Russia-headquartered company was reported to have a 10 per cent stake in HKMEx. But the appointment didn't last long - just over six months - although he remains an independent non-executive director.

His seemingly profitable trading business, meanwhile, had been failing since August.

Cheung's political prospects were seen to be on the rise after Leung Chun-ying took over the chief executive's office in July - helped by Cheung, who led his election campaign. The pair were old colleagues, having been fellow board members of the Land Development Corporation in the 1990s.

Cheung was later rewarded with more public posts, including that of executive councillor, membership of the Long Term Housing Strategy Committee and the vice-chairmanship of the Commission on Strategic Development. His two-year reappointment as the URA's chairman, beyond the six-year limit, was also seen as a result of his ties with Leung.

It was said to be aimed at preserving smooth operations after changes in senior management and board members.

"Cheung's suspension from all public posts is a blow to our morale," said an experienced staff member at the URA. "He encouraged the senior staff not to shy away from media and urged them to enhance the organisation's transparency."

Cheung's family is also not without controversy.

In 1994 the Foreign Ministry in Beijing issued a strongly worded statement just hours after Cheung's father, Cheung Hon-chung, rented the Hong Kong Cultural Centre to celebrate Taiwan's national day - the Double Tenth - in 1994.

A spokesman of the pro-Taiwan Chinese Culture Association, Cheung Hon-chung fled Communist rule for Hong Kong in the late 1940s.