Hong Kong deserves the truth on Leung's illegal structures

Albert Cheng says the best way to restore public trust would be to set up an independent commission to get to the bottom of the scandal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 1:16am

It seems history does repeat itself, albeit perhaps only to a certain extent. The local media has been relentless over the past few days, digging deeper and deeper into the illegal structures scandal plaguing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

All these tales of alleged illegal activities and cover-ups are now leading some people in Hong Kong to equate it to the Watergate scandal in the United States, which ultimately led to the resignation of president Richard Nixon.

Here in Hong Kong, other senior officials have been implicated, including Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po, Buildings Director Au Choi-kai, and former deputy buildings director Lam Siu-tong.

The scandal has now got so bad that it is eroding Hong Kong's fundamental core values and moral standards, which form the bedrock of the city's success and way of life. Leung has managed to do that in only five months in office.

He moved to try to clarify the controversy only after the overturning of the legal challenge, which claimed his election was unlawful because of his false statements about the illegal structures.

Leung now seems to believe the worst is over.

When the illegal structures at his Peak home were first exposed by the press in June, Leung tried to cover up by claiming they had been installed by a previous owner. When that was shown to be false, he claimed it was an oversight and blamed a lapse of memory for his poor handling of the case. Not only has he insulted the intelligence of the Hong Kong people, his behaviour has also been unbecoming of a leader of this great city.

His approval ratings have hit rock bottom. He has no credibility left - and no shame. He covered up his illegal structure scandal during the chief executive election. When Carrie Lam, then development secretary, was handling the case of Henry Tang Ying-yen's illegal basement, she referred the case to the Independent Commission Against Corruption and rounded up more than 100 witnesses.

This week, she denied interfering in an investigation by the Buildings Department into the illegal structures at Leung's home. If that claim is proved false, it would create an even bigger scandal.

Lam knew that if Tang became chief executive, she wouldn't be selected to join the top ranks of his governance team.

At one point, she even told a local Chinese newspaper that she would quit the government and join her family in Britain if Tang became chief executive. But when Leung suddenly surged ahead, Lam was more than happy to join his team.

When Lam first looked into the illegal structure controversy involving Tang, she said she would deal fairly with all parties found to have unauthorised building structures. Yet, at the time, the government's treatment of cases involving illegal structures was clearly different in urban and rural areas, giving more leeway to New Territories landlords and tenants.

Lam also stressed she would give priority to cases of public interest, which mostly involved public figures. That smacked of a double standard and put unfair pressure on public figures.

It appeared that the cases involving illegal structures had become a powerful political tool, to be used to suppress opposition to the Leung government.

The rule of law is the foundation on which our civilised society is based, and, of course, proof beyond reasonable doubt is always needed to convict any person accused of a crime.

In the case of Leung's illegal structures, there are many areas where suspicion remains amid dubious circumstances. At this stage, it all seems to point to a joint effort by senior officials to help Leung cover up the scandal.

Therefore, the Legislative Council must use the powers and privileges bestowed on it by the relevant ordinance to launch an investigation, and the ICAC must follow suit.

To go further, I think there is a need for an independent commission to review the case. It should model itself after the one chaired by former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang that was set up to look into preventing and handling potential conflicts of interest. That commission was established after former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was discovered to have accepted lifts on yachts and private jets from tycoons without approval, as well as staying in luxury hotel suites during official trips abroad.

We want the truth about this latest case. Hong Kong people deserve nothing less. Leung should take a page out of his predecessor's book and set up an independent review committee. As Hong Kong's leader, he needs to dispel once and for all any suspicion of impropriety. However, if he genuinely wants to do the right thing, he should resign.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]