Carrie Lam defends plan for HK$3.5 billion Palace Museum over transparency concerns

Chief secretary cuts short her Christmas holiday to fly to Beijing for cultural exchange meetings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 4:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 11:09pm

Hong Kong’s No 2 official on Monday dismissed concerns about a lack of transparency over the city’s HK$3.5 billion deal to build its own version of Beijing’s celebrated Palace Museum, saying it would be “embarrassing” if a public consultation threw up opposition to it.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was on the defensive as she announced that she would cut short her Christmas holiday to fly to Beijing for the second time in a week for official meetings on cultural exchanges. But she made clear she would not be meeting Beijing officials to discuss her widely expected bid for Hong Kong’s top job after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying opted out of seeking a second term.

“It is very difficult to conduct a public consultation because it involves the central government and the related ministries,” Lam said. “You can imagine that, if we were to ask the public if they wanted to have more exhibits from the Palace Museum more than half a year earlier, everyone should respond positively.

Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam says she extended Beijing trip to be with son, not to meet officials to discuss chief executive race

“But if more than half a year later, someone disagreed with it, it would be very embarrassing.”

Last Friday, Lam announced a surprise deal with Beijing to create a Hong Kong version of the Palace Museum at the West Kowloon Cultural District. Critics have questioned the lack of public consultation for the project, which will be fully funded by the Jockey Club and will not require the Legislative Council’s approval.

Lam insisted there was no need to invite public feedback because the arts hub is run by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority instead of the Hong Kong government.

She pointed out that she was also the chairwoman of the authority’s board and had met each member to discuss the project before getting their approval last month.

“It might have taken people by surprise because the confidentiality worked so well,” she said, adding that no consultation was required when the mainland gifted Hong Kong with two giant pandas about a decade ago.

Decision to build Hong Kong Palace Museum at West Kowloon Cultural District only revealed to board last month, member claims

Tanya Chan, deputy chairwoman of a Legco panel monitoring the West Kowloon development, was unconvinced.

“Did she mean that public consultations must be avoided if any opposition is expected?” Chan said.

She noted that legislation on the arts hub states “the Authority shall, in relation to matters concerning the development or operation of arts and cultural facilities, related facilities, ancillary facilities and any other matters as the Authority considers fit, consult the public at such time and in such manner as it considers appropriate”.

Chris Ip Ngo-tung, an authority board member, confirmed that members had expressed support for the project when briefed on it at a meeting last month. He said they were told that preparations had already begun, and prominent local architect Rocco Yim Sen-kee would lead the project .

While Lam had to cancel her leave to be in Beijing again on Wednesday and Thursday to attend the opening ceremony of a Cultural Relics Hospital, and call on the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, Professor Oscar Ho Hing-kay from Chinese University questioned why Lam was being invited instead of cultural officials.

Ho suggested there was a political agenda behind the project, and that it was unprofessional for the authority to just add and remove elements of the arts hub.

Separately, potential chief executive candidate John Tsang Chun-wah, who resigned from his post as financial secretary two weeks ago, wrote on Facebook on Monday that he had been busy reaching out to people in Sham Shui Po last Friday.

Tsang said he understood that the government is duty-bound to tackle the problems the city is facing. But he also said he understands the limitations of what the government can do.