Hong Kong should replace its justice chief Teresa Cheng, and refine rules on illegal structures
Albert Cheng says the chief executive should take the opportunity to resolve the long-standing problem of unauthorised building works at Hong Kong homes. And, with the latest revelations of more illegal works at the justice chief’s home, Carrie Lam should reconsider her backing
Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah has been secretary of justice for almost three weeks now, and the unauthorised building works controversy continues. The scandal broke on the first day of her taking office. A total of 10 illegal structures were found at two adjacent houses in Tuen Mun that are owned respectively by Cheng and her husband, Otto Poon Lok-to. This week, more illegal structures were found at another of her properties, in Repulse Bay.
Cheng had earlier refused to address the controversy at the Legislative Council, but on Wednesday she backed down and appeared before lawmakers at their weekly meeting.
Her crisis management is disastrous. She is now a ticking political time bomb for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her administration. Taking the broader situation into consideration, Cheng has no choice but to resign immediately.
Cheng clearly lacks political sensibility and common sense. Similar scandals had dogged other politicians in the past, including the well-known cases involving former chief executive Leung Chun-ying and his election rival Henry Tang Ying-yen. Yet, Cheng failed to examine her own properties before taking office.
The scandal also uncovered the little-known marriage of Cheng and Poon. The couple married in 2016, and Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan served as a witness to the marriage. The disclosure left people wondering about the reason behind the cover-up of Cheng’s marital status, and further fuelled public concern over her credibility.
That is not all. It also came to light that Cheng had bought her Repulse Bay flat last year as a first-time buyer, despite owning companies that bought at least three other properties in Tuen Mun and Sha Tin.
The sale and purchase agreement showed that Cheng paid stamp duty of HK$2.635 million, or 4.25 per cent of the flat price, as a first-time buyer. If she had not made this claim, she would have had to pay stamp duty of 15 per cent, or about HK$9.3 million.
Cheng should be ashamed of herself that she, as head of the Justice Department, made use of a loophole in the law to save herself money. She must step down.
So far, Lam has backed Cheng, claiming that her integrity was unquestionable. However, if the controversy continues to fester, the cost of keeping the justice chief in her position will grow higher by the day.
Unauthorised building works at Hong Kong homes are a long-standing problem. As I have repeatedly said in previous columns, to simply require that all illegal structures be taken down is no longer effective. The focus should be on unauthorised works that are a risk to personal safety and that are under construction; these should be demolished immediately.
A more thorough solution would be to impose stricter restrictions on owners. The government should require the Hong Kong Monetary Authority to issue guidelines to stop banks from offering mortgages to properties with illegal structures. When reselling a property, the owner should be required to restore it to its original state.
At the same time, however, a property owner should be allowed to pay a “tolerance fee” if he or she wants to keep the illegal structures, on the condition that the property is safe and does not involve any land title disputes. The fee could be set according to the rates of the property.
This two-pronged approach would be more effective in resolving the problem, as well as increase the Treasury revenue. There are hundreds of thousands of properties with illegal structures in Hong Kong. If the owner of each were to pay a fee, the total could amount to billions. The government may even consider setting up a foundation that provides subsidies to people who cannot afford the demolition fees, or that supports different urban renewal projects.
It is never too late to right a wrong. If Lam is determined to formulate an effective policy to tackle the illegal structures in Hong Kong, this is her best chance.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]