A minister on the wrong track?
Professor Anthony Cheung was being tipped as possible chief executive a week ago. But a delay to the high-speed rail link threatens those hopes
When central government officials last week hinted that the door was open for a pan-democrat to run for chief executive, some observers speculated that Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung could win Beijing's approval for a 2017 campaign.
Yet just two days later the Democratic Party co-founder-turned transport and housing minister was at the centre of a storm that casts a shadow over his career prospects. It fell to Cheung to announce on Tuesday that the HK$67 billion high-speed rail link to Guangzhou would be delayed for two years due to "unforeseen difficulties".
Cheung's announcement - and especially his expression of "surprise" at the delay - attracted flak from across the political spectrum, with questions raised on whether the government was doing enough to monitor the most expensive rail project by distance in history.
His cause wasn't helped by the fact that, when MTR documents emerged in May last year suggesting a delay was likely, officials stuck to the line that the mega project was on track.
Pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao questioned whether Cheung was "negligent", while New People's Party lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun accused Cheung of lax oversight.
"Last year, he told us it was OK but now he expresses surprise," Tien said. "That means he did not cross-check what the MTR Corporation told him." Cheung is supposedly briefed regularly on the project's progress, he added.
It was not the first time Cheung has been on the receiving end since he became a minister less than two years ago.
In February, Cheung faced a walkout from 23 pan-democrats after steering a bill through the Legislative Council that made the higher stamp duties introduced in 2012 law. They were angry that Cheung only offered a verbal commitment to put any increase in the stamp duty to lawmakers before it came into force, rather than following the usual practice of "negative vetting" - when lawmakers only debate a tax change after it is put into effect.
The pan-democrats argued that this "verbal commitment" went against the spirit of the rule of law and accused him of being disrespectful to legislators.
Their disappointment was no doubt increased by the fact that Cheung was once one of their number.
Cheung was a lawmaker from 1995 to 1997, while also serving as a vice-chairman of the Democratic Party and continuing his academic career at City University's department of public and social administration. Cheung was elected to Legco a year after Meeting Point, the political group he chaired, merged with the United Democrats to create the Democratic Party.
But Cheung found himself under attack from members of the new party with a more radical stance on political and social issues. He was ousted from the vice-chairmanship by the party's so-called Young Turks.
He remained a party member, but quit in 2004 to focus, he said, on his think tank, SynergyNet.
But Cheung's political career did not end there - a year later, he was appointed to the Executive Council by then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.
And Cheung brushed off scepticism from his former colleagues to accept various public posts, including three key jobs he took in 2007 and 2008: president of the Institute of Education, chairman of the Consumer Council and the chairmanship of the Housing Authority's subsidised housing committee.
Years of research and experience in public administration saw Cheung emerge as a leading candidate to run the Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau - which Tsang's successor Leung Chun-ying planned to relaunch after his election in 2012.
But when the government reshuffle was derailed by a filibuster launched by radical lawmakers, Cheung instead became secretary for transport and housing - and the only minister in Leung's cabinet to have a pan-democratic background.
Cheung's ability to straddle the political divide has seen him touted as a possible answer to one of the biggest uncertainties surrounding reform: the question of whether a pan-democrat can meet Beijing's criteria that a chief executive must "love the country and Hong Kong".
A source close to the government last month hinted that Cheung could emerge as a candidate with the trust of both camps and help resolve the impasse that has put reform in doubt.
"The fact that the central government approved Cheung's appointment as a minister is an indication of Beijing's trust in him," the source said.
A veteran pan-democrat agreed Cheung would be one of the few pan-democrat-linked candidates acceptable to Beijing.
Cheung has stayed away from the speculation. Last month, his spokesman would only say: "Professor Cheung has committed to serving the current-term government until June 2017. He has not made any commitment to be in government beyond 2017."
But future electoral prospects are surely the last thing on Cheung's mind now. The pressing concern is satisfying lawmakers' demands for a clearer picture of what has gone wrong with the railway project and staving off their threat of a formal investigation if no answers are provided within a fortnight.
"I think it is not easy for him to solve this political storm because he has reassured us that the project can be completed on time," Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said. "It will be a big challenge for him, and if he cannot handle it well, of course it will affect his political career."
While Wu stressed that the Democrats would handle the issue objectively, regardless of Cheung's background, Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung warned that the real threat could come from the pro-establishment camp.
"I believe there are hardliners from the pro-establishment camp who are [uncomfortable] with Cheung's pan-democratic background," Choy said. "So while they would support the government on political matters … they might be reluctant to support Cheung on an issue."
But it was too early to say whether the delay would affect Cheung's political career in the long run, Choy added.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung
Education: University of Hong Kong; Aston University, Britain (master's); London School of Economics (doctorate)
Profession: City University academic, founding chairman of SynergyNet think tank, 2002-05
Public posts: Executive Council member, 2005-12; Consumer Council chairman, 2007-12; subsidised housing committee chairman, the Housing Authority, 2007-12; Institute of education president, 2008-12
Political affiliation: Democratic Party (member 1994-2004; vice-chairman, 1994-98; lawmaker, 1995-97)
Current post: Secretary for transport and housing, since 2012