Teresa Cheng mired in a crisis of her own making
Hong Kong’s justice minister should have known about illegal structures at her properties yet by claiming ignorance, she has brought into question her ability to handle one of the most important jobs in government
Beleaguered Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah is hanging onto her job after just 17 days in office because she retains the government’s support. This is based on the conviction she has not tried to hide anything or intentionally mislead the government about illegal structures at properties she owns.
So long as that is seen as the bottom line, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has defended her. But continuing unexpected disclosures of more illegal structures make it difficult to sustain that position. They not only reflect poorly on attempts at damage control, but they have amplified the political risks of the issue down the track for both Cheng and the government. This is no longer just about illegal structures, but also about trust.
The focus now shifts from crisis management to an inevitable legacy of negative perceptions. The question is to what extent any erosion of public trust in Cheng over the illegal structures issue will impact adversely on her future work as the government’s chief legal adviser in a political landscape fraught with controversy. It is a very serious issue that needs to be considered not only by Cheng but by the chief executive and the entire government.
Mishandling of the illegal structures issue from the day she took office has, however unfairly but nonetheless understandably, raised questions in the public’s mind about her capability of dealing with legal and political crises. It seems impossible to convince pan-democrats and critics and it remains to be seen whether she can really rebuild public confidence, given that she has fallen back on the excuse that she has been too busy to look into issues such as compliance of her properties with building laws.
The fact that Cheng is both a senior legal counsel and a civil engineer prompts the reflection that if an ordinary person were to offer up the excuse that they were too busy to ensure compliance with the law, it is not likely to be accepted by a court or other authority. There will also be people who question whether someone who cannot deal with private matters properly is capable of handling public duties.
All this does not mean that someone who has made considerable personal financial sacrifice in order to render public service should accede to calls to quit if she believes she has done nothing wrong. But perceptions can be everything. Questions about public trust in integrity and confidence in capability cannot be lightly brushed over.
When, at the outset of the scandal, she urged people to focus not on her house but on other important issues, she was right up to a point. But as the No 4 principal official responsible for ensuring the government complies with the law, she needs to meet public expectations, not just of the perception of personal integrity but ability to deal with a crisis.