Why Hong Kong’s new justice minister should either step down or be fired on the spot

Yonden Lhatoo argues that Teresa Cheng’s position as secretary for justice has become untenable, no matter which way you look at it, because of the scandal over illegal structures at her house and persisting questions about her conduct

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 January, 2018, 3:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 January, 2018, 10:24pm

So this is the tone Hong Kong is setting for the rule of law for 2018? Fabulous.

As we settle into a new year fraught with ticking time bombs triggered by constitutionally contentious government moves and unprecedented public attacks on the judiciary over court rulings that upset one polarised faction of society or the other, the post of justice minister has become the most politically sensitive job in the city.

Sitting in that hottest of seats is Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, the newly appointed guardian of the rule of law who has just been exposed for breaking the law, and we’re all being asked to get over it, so to speak, for the greater good.

There is apparently no question of Cheng stepping down or being fired on the spot as a pressing matter of principle, even after Buildings Department inspectors, following up on media inquiries, identified 10 illegal structures at Cheng’s luxury home and her husband’s next door, including 538 sq ft basements in both.

Where do I even start? While it may be the norm in this city for rich and powerful people to ignore inconvenient laws and illegally expand their already opulent homes, you would imagine those among them destined for high office would be well versed in the cautionary tale of Henry Tang Ying-yen.

The former No 2 government official was a shoo-in for the chief executive’s job until the unearthing of a massive illegal basement at his luxury home torpedoed his election campaign.

Give justice chief Teresa Cheng space to explain ‘unfortunate’ illegal structures scandal, veteran government adviser says

It turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg, as Leung Chun-ying, Tang’s election nemesis who beat him for the top job, was implicated in a similar scandal, and a bevy of other lawbreaking officials were likewise exposed.

That triggered a government warning to all civil servants to get their houses in order and a purported crackdown led by none other than Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, development minister at the time.

Now, nearly six years later, Lam, as chief executive, is asking us not to conflate the illegal structure issue with Cheng’s suitability for the job. The city’s leader apparently believes her new minister’s excuse that she was genuinely unaware of the problem at home and could only be blamed for carelessness and political insensitivity at the most.

Hong Kong justice chief admits lack of political sensitivity but refuses to resign over illegal structures scandal

You can understand why people are finding it hard to believe Cheng’s story that all those extra facilities were already there when she bought the house in 2008, and that she never once suspected they were illegal or had the time to check. This is coming from a legal eagle who is also a qualified engineer, along with her husband, and spent years leading an appeal tribunal that dealt with exactly this kind of thing.

As part of her dogged defence of Cheng, Lam reiterated an old gripe of hers – that the current political atmosphere is so toxic, no one of worth in the private sector wants to risk the tarring and feathering that public service often entails these days.

There is food for thought here: how squeaky clean can you expect talent from the private sector to be when you’re applying the rigorous standards imposed on our civil servants? Is it time for a reality check and rethink? This case will have a chilling effect.

The issue of illegal structures is a time bomb, not a lack of political sensitivity

Meanwhile, what an unholy mess. Even Lam’s mentors in Beijing must be throwing up their hands and saying: “Oh come on! Illegal basements? Again?”

By the way, I trust you didn’t miss the supreme irony in the contrasting photos of the media circus outside the home of Cheng this week – with news crews using remote-controlled drones to film the fiasco – and Tang’s case back in 2012, when they had to rely on elevation provided by cherry pickers for a bird’s-eye view.

As you can see, technology has soared to new heights over the past six years, while some things remain at rock bottom.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post