Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam links Beijing Palace Museum row to leadership bid

City’s No 2 official says controversy has ‘only offered more bullets for critics’, as chosen architect reveals details of plans for Hong Kong Palace Museum

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2017, 11:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 8:29am

Hong Kong’s No 2 official has for the first time linked the controversy over her museum deal with Beijing to her widely expected bid for the city’s top job, saying the HK$3.5 billion deal had provided more ammunition for her attackers since she hinted last month she would run for chief executive.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor struck a defiant tone yesterday as the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, whose board she chairs, launched a public consultation on the design and operation of the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

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Lam revealed that it was she who first approached top architect Rocco Yim Sen-kee last May, a month before he started a HK$4.5 million feasibility study on building the museum and exhibition centre complex at the West Kowloon arts hub.

Yim was appointed design consultant in November for Hong Kong’s version of the famed Beijing museum.

The controversy has snowballed into a severe leadership test for Lam since her surprise announcement of the deal with Beijing on December 23. She is facing a political storm over the lack of public consultation and transparency during the decision-making process, and for Yim’s appointment behind closed doors.

Announcing the new, six-week consultation exercise a day after its launch was abruptly postponed, Lam and core officials responsible for the project said the public would now have a say in the interior design and operation of the museum, which will be funded solely by the Jockey Club.

Lam said she felt “excited” about the museum deal, describing how she was touched by the passion of conservation experts at Beijing’s Palace Museum.

“I would accept criticisms, but we must not politicise this cultural project, belittle the value and significance of the Palace Museum’s collection, nor deprive Hong Kong residents of their opportunity to appreciate them,” Lam said.

She denied being driven by personal ambition and interest to push for the project, but linked the backlash to her announcement that she would “reconsider” running for chief executive in March after incumbent Leung Chun-ying said he would not seek a second term.

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“The day when I became some people’s target of attacks was not December 23, it was December 10, when I said I have to reconsider whether to run ... This important project only offered more bullets for critics,” she said.

The controversy deepened over the weekend with the revelation that the arts hub authority had asked Yim to assess whether the site could accommodate the planned museum months before its board chose the architect as its design consultant.

Lam insisted that the payment of HK$4.5 million for the feasibility study was allowed under the authority’s procurement policy, arguing that “large institutions and the government would also empower their chair or ministers to act under delegated authority”.

But Lam’s critics, with pan-democratic lawmakers at the forefront, were unconvinced by her explanation yesterday.

“It is uncommon for the preliminary study and the final design to be done by the same consultant ... It is unacceptable for this to take place in a public institution and the government,” architectural sector legislator Edward Yiu Chung-yim said.

Oscar Ho Hing-kay, a specialist in cultural studies at Chinese University, said: “Lam was criticising more than answering questions from the floor, and she seems to be in a hurry to get the project over with and bypass proper procedures.”

Yesterday was also the first time that architect Yim faced the media to answer questions, after the controversy erupted last month.

Echoing Lam’s view that he was legitimately appointed as the museum’s design consultant, Yim said: “I feel excited to be involved in this challenging project ... and I don’t understand why it became so controversial.”

Yim added that he cared about the careers of local architects, and hoped they could win more contracts with their talent and track records.

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He noted that in an open bidding process, as called for by those objecting to his appointment, it is simply the lowest bidder who usually wins.

While his team was only about “60 to 80 per cent done” on the museum’s design, it would be “a contemporary expression of traditional Chinese spatial and visual cultures”, as well as Hong Kong urban culture, he also revealed.

Yim said the museum would be about seven storeys tall, with an outdoor podium for visitors to enjoy views of Victoria Harbour.