Saturation point - for the trains and for Leung's man Cheung Chi-kong

Exco member who was derided and forced to say sorry for MTR gaffe rarely concedes a point

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 5:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:38pm

Government adviser Cheung Chi-kong is not one to back down. But over the weekend he was forced into an embarrassing apology for claiming that a record number of workers - not mainland visitors - was to blame for overcrowding on the trains.

The Executive Council member had been pilloried for saying at a forum last Monday that those who blamed the rising number of mainland visitors for crowding on the MTR had reached the "wrong conclusion". Cheung, 56, told the forum: "People complain that mainland travellers are making our traffic very busy.

"But a major reason is that the number of employees [in Hong Kong] has risen by more than 100,000 over the past two years."

The remarks come at a time when some 40 million mainlanders visit Hong Kong every year - a number that is expected to reach 100 million by 2020. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's administration is grappling with heightened social tensions created by this influx - including the plight of annoyed commuters who struggle to get on trains.

Cheung eventually conceded that mainland visitors also contribute to the crush and admitted he had "oversimplified the problem". In an interview with TVB on Saturday, he said he had meant to say the growing number of mainland visitors was not the only reason for crowding on trains: "I was careless and did not make myself very clear. For this, I apologise."

Dr James Sung Lap-kung, of City University, who has known Cheung a long time, said he rarely conceded a point. "He is the kind of person who will spare no effort to win [an argument]," Sung said. "He is a talkative man. He likes to talk a lot and get his point across.

"I would say that he has grown much more reserved. He used to be more harsh and direct."

In March, he took aim at the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme, which conducts polls on Leung's popularity, saying Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu's team was misleading the public by only unveiling the average scores. A poll that month put Leung's popularity at 47.5 marks out of 100. But Cheung said the raw data showed 62 per cent of respondents had rated the chief executive's popularity at 50 marks or above.

Cheung also questioned Chung's polling methodology, including asking people to rate the extent to which they supported Leung on a scale of zero to 100. He argued there was no objective standard for giving such a mark, or for how it should be interpreted, and said the question should be more straightforward.

He denied criticisms that he was meddling with academic freedom, saying his comments were not politically motivated. "I was writing articles about polling methodology in 2012," he said at the time, referring to the period before he was elevated to Leung's quasi-cabinet. Yet the episode may be seen as a win for Cheung. As a result of the furore, Chung agreed to make public the raw data behind the surveys.

Cheung is also executive director of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, a think tank co-founded by Leung in 1990. And Leung also appointed him to the University Grants Committee last year, despite his inexperience in the area.

Cheung joined the think tank in 2006, taking over from Shiu Sin-por. Shiu went on to head the government's Central Policy Unit think tank in 2012, reporting directly to Leung.

Before he joined the research institute, Cheung was executive director of the Hong Kong Development Forum, which is run by Ronnie Chan Chi-chung. Chan, another Leung supporter, is also chairman of property developer the Hang Lung Group, sits on the research institute's board and is chairman of its executive committee. Offices for both the institute and the forum are located on the 61st floor of the Bank of China Tower in Central.

This web of connections has given rise to the perception that the research institute is nothing more than a haunt for Leung's sidekicks - and Cheung has become a target for the chief executive's critics. Last month, Shiu's think tank was accused of favouring Cheung's institute when outsourcing research work.

Pan-democrat Frederick Fung Kin-kee raised concerns about a possible conflict of interest, saying the unit had commissioned the institute four times in the past two years to carry out studies on political issues. The unit denied the allegations, saying all tenders were considered according to the guidelines.

The institute was last week granted HK$588,000 under a Central Policy Unit scheme for its study on the impact of the bridge linking Hong Kong with Zhuhai and Macau. It was one of five projects granted funding.

After graduating from Chinese University in 1984, Cheung worked as a producer at RTHK for four years and went on to work for private consultancy firms in the 1990s before joining the Hong Kong Development Forum in 2004. But he has been no stranger to controversy - even before he joined Exco. His criticism of government-run RTHK in 2009, for example, over a programme marking the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, elicited calls to protect editorial independence.

Cheung has three daughters. His wife, Glendy Chu, is a senior vice-president at DBS Bank.

Cheung Chi-kong

Age 56

Education Bachelor of Social Science and Master of Business Administration from Chinese University

Public service
Executive Council member
Vice-chairman of the Public Libraries Advisory Committee
Member of the Independent Commission Against Corruption complaints committee
University Grants Committee member

Awards Bronze Bauhinia Star, 2011