Housing controversy exposes rift between Hong Kong’s leader and finance minister
Leung Chun-ying and John Tsang Chun-wah appear to shift responsibility to each other over scaling down of Yuen Long housing project, while chief secretary also distances herself
Hong Kong’s finance minister, John Tsang Chun-wah, publicly distanced himself on Monday from a housing project at the centre of a political storm after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying brought his name into the controversy.
While they did not take up directly contradictory positions, their confusing statements, amid allegations about collusion between the government and rural leaders with vested land interests, were widely seen as evidence of a rift between the two potential rivals for the city’s top job in next year’s election.
Leung’s government is under intense public pressure to justify the decision to prioritise the construction of 4,000 public housing flats by displacing three villages instead of simultaneously developing a larger brownfield site – a ruined agricultural plot – nearby in Wang Chau, Yuen Long, that is controlled by rural leaders and would yield 13,000 more flats.
Leung, who has denied bowing to pressure from rural strongmen, suggested the financial secretary’s involvement in government deliberations when he was grilled by the media Monday afternoon. That was after the Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper, citing a leaked document, reported that Leung had chaired a task force over Wang Chau in 2013, a month before housing officials did some “soft lobbying” to win rural leaders’ backing.
Holding a copy of the document yesterday, Leung quoted a reference to “detailed issues to be followed up by the Steering Committee on Land Supply”.
“Now this is a standing committee – I am not part of it – it is chaired by the financial secretary,” he said.
Leung claimed he had chaired the task force that met only once, in June 2013. It was more appropriate for him to be the chair and to coordinate, as the housing and development ministers in the task force worked for the chief secretary and Tsang already, he said.
“There is no trade-off at all. We are responsible to the entire Hong Kong community in resolving the long-standing housing shortage problem,” he said, promising to hold a press conference on it later.
The finance minister’s office said in a reply to media enquiries that while Tsang was a member of the task force, he did not attend its one and only meeting.
Tsang said his own panel also had a duty to “coordinate various departments”.
Echoing Tsang’s denial about involvement in the scaling down of the project, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said she was not a member of the task force or steering committee.
Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung suggested Leung might be trying to drag Tsang into the controversy to bring down his popularity as a potential rival.
“His statement also seems to confirm the public impression that there are rifts between him and Leung Chun-ying.”
Lawmaker-elect Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, who has faced death threats possibly linked to his campaigns against rural forces, lamented the two officials’ remarks.
“Their statements are only confusing the picture,” Chu said. “The public want to hear one full account from the government, not 10 different stories.”
Additional reporting by Ernest Kao