Amid Teresa Cheng’s illegal structures scandal, Hong Kong faces a growing crisis of confidence
Alice Wu says the incompetence behind the handling of the revelations about the new justice chief’s home, combined with another dismal property purchasing capability index, reveals the government’s profound insensitivity to a public struggling with housing affordability
Over the past week, the Hong Kong public has been taken on quite a ride. Fortunately, this isn’t one hasn’t driven droves of angry and aggrieved people onto the streets, to stop traffic, set up tents and throw bricks (at least not yet).
The appointment of Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah to succeed Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung as Hong Kong’s new secretary for justice should have been a piece of cake. Yuen has been involved in pretty much every highly politically charged issue, and Cheng should have been a shoo-in for the administration in terms of improving its public image and granting it a reprieve.
Perhaps the weather is why – amid calls for Cheng’s resignation and her declarations of no intention to quit – the “public rage thermometer” hasn’t gone off the charts. Perhaps the notoriety of public figures entangled in illegal structure scandals has ebbed.
But if the Lam administration thinks this nightmare will soon be over, they are deluding themselves. The biggest public relations blunder so far of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s tenure makes one wonder whether the government has adequate reality-check measures in place.
Naturally, the uncovering of the illegal structures at Cheng’s residence, her marital status, her spouse’s identity and her husband’s illegal structures at his residence (next to hers) made for an entertaining political saga. To Cheng’s credit, she did report her newly found problems to the chief executive after the Buildings Department asked to enter her property to investigate unauthorised structures on the premises. But this immediately shed light not only on Cheng’s, but the administration’s insensitivity. After Henry Tang Ying-yen’s underground palace became an explosive issue during his chief executive campaign, only outright incompetence explains why checking for illegal structures is not part of the official vetting process.
Lam made it clear she stands by Cheng and asked the public to “exercise tolerance” and be “more objective”. She reiterated that the saga has not affected her own measure of Cheng’s integrity. One wonders, though, whether Lam’s “every confidence” in Cheng on the eve of her first day as justice minister remains.
Even if public sentiment hasn’t been enflamed by this PR disaster, it should be noted that it occurred alongside the release of the latest numbers for Hong Kong’s property purchasing capability subindex, placing the city at its lowest since the survey started in 2009.
Explaining Hong Kong’s housing crisis
A call for “tolerance” and “objectivity” is not going to placate simmering public frustration over the government’s inability to make housing affordable. And those stuck in subdivided flats, along with the growing number of exasperated aspiring homeowners, cannot be blamed for finding ridiculous Lam’s request for Cheng to be “allowed more room” to deal with the illegal structures. To think we can just ignore that Cheng is co-author of Construction Law and Practice in Hong Kong and not feel insulted is wishful thinking.
The crisis of confidence in Hong Kong has gone from bad to worse. Competence and trust are very different things. It’s one thing to have no confidence in the government’s ability to solve issues. It’s another to have no confidence in the government’s ability to comprehend public realities.
In Hong Kong, we have a double-whammy confidence crisis. It’s best for the government to wake up now to that fact, and for Lam to consider that those who criticise her for being “out of touch” may have been more “objective” than she thought.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA