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West Kowloon Cultural District

Hong Kong’s No 2 official makes ‘leadership pitch’ in Palace Museum row

Chief secretary grilled by lawmakers on controversial HK$3.5b deal days ahead of her expected resignation to enter race for Hong Kong’s top job

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 January, 2017, 11:42am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 1:57am

Hong Kong’s No 2 official fought off accusations of high-handedness and conflict of interest on Friday as she was grilled by lawmakers for the first time over a controversial museum deal with Beijing, just a week before she is expected to resign so she can run for the city’s top job.

Several sources confirmed to the Post that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor would resign next week, most likely on Thursday. She was said to be setting up her campaign office already.

At a special Legislative Council meeting, lawmakers took her to task over the lack of public consultation in the initial planning of Hong Kong’s own version of Beijing’s famed Palace Museum.

The HK$3.5 billion project, solely financed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, will be built on a prime harbourfront site at the West Kowloon Cultural District.

“I am an official who likes to take initiatives,” Lam said in a speech that came across to some as a pitch for the top job. “For the past three decades, especially in the leadership roles in recent years, I have been rather proactive. I hope to do things for Hong Kong.”

Noting that all the lawmakers had gone through elections, Lam, a career bureaucrat, said: “I never had the exposure to, or experience of, elections. I understand that, before, during or after elections, it’s best not to have controversies.”

Describing the decision to build the Hong Kong Palace Museum as a “well-grounded judgment”, she continued: “In today’s [society], if [local] officials refrain from making any judgments for Hong Kong, it can hardly develop.”

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While the idea of a permanent museum here to display China’s national treasures initially sounded “surreal”, Lam said, she had “explored the option with a core of colleagues based on my consistent desire to do things for Hong Kong”.

Lam, who also chairs the board of the authority running the arts hub, revealed for the first time that the idea stemmed from a “chat” with the Beijing museum’s head, Shan Jixiang, in September 2015.

“I had a casual chat with director Shan, and he praised the curatorial quality of Hong Kong’s museums,” she said. “He asked us if the West Kowloon Cultural District has room for an exhibition facility for Palace Museum exhibits.”

The government earlier stated that it was the Hong Kong side that commenced “exploratory discussions” with the Beijing museum in 2015.

“Smearing or humiliating me is fine. But please do not belittle the value of Palace Museum relics,” Lam told her critics, some of whom suggested she had shown preferential treatment to the Jockey Club in return for the funding.

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“Hongkongers were left in the dark,” lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching said. “She treated Hongkongers as nothing.”

The Civic Party’s Kwok Ka-ki called it “a perfect illustration of how core values are twisted”, adding: “An official can’t do anything he or she wants just to gain political capital.”

Lam replied: “I don’t think I have violated procedural justice.”

Asked whether she should have been more transparent before appearing in Beijing for a surprise museum deal signing ceremony, she insisted she had to make sure there was land and funding before submitting a proposal to Beijing.

Chinese University political commentator Ivan Choy Chi-keung said Lam had intentionally highlighted her strengths during yesterday’s session.

“She skilfully shifted criticisms to self-recognition of her own work,” Choy said. He noted that Lam did not say “no” when Mo asked her if the museum plan was related to her election plans.