City Beat
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To back or not to back? That is the question for Hong Kong’s political players over scandal-hit Teresa Cheng

Whether the pan-democrats can take advantage of the beleaguered justice chief is a bet between them, Cheng and all her supporters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2018, 7:52pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2018, 11:30pm

To be or not to be, that is the question.

This classic quote, in various versions, seems to be resonating in the city these days as the illegal structure saga of Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah keeps snowballing.

To be or not to be justice minister is Cheng’s dilemma as she struggles to overcome a self-inflicted political crisis over her rather unskilled handling of the case, which has not only supplied her critics with plenty of ammunition, but also raised other unanswered questions that led to doubts about her integrity and ability to carry out her public duties.

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While Cheng has strongly defended her integrity, her supporters are faced with a predicament of their own: To carry on backing her or to give up.

The new justice minister’s strongest supporter, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, was in Davos over the past week, participating in the World Economic Forum at the Swiss ski resort in an effort to promote Hong Kong’s international image.

She must have been upset at the “general feeling” – according to a pro-establishment heavyweight who preferred to remain anonymous – among the government’s allies that the embattled minster’s position may be untenable. Lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun, a more outspoken member of the camp, revealed that they were getting “impatient” about Cheng.

Yet, one critical factor to consider is what Beijing thinks. Being an important stakeholder in the matter as Cheng was appointed by the central government, based on Lam’s recommendation, Beijing must be assessing the worst-case possible scenario.

Its silence so far is quite telling.

Interestingly, Beijing’s thinking on the fate of the city’s No 4 official somehow depends on a rather peculiar situation.

Opposition pan-democrats, who usually can’t wait to give a hard time to any official, seem to be facing their own dilemma this time: To go or not to go to extremes in pressing Cheng to step down.

So far, the opposition camp apparently has not yet come up with a united, harsher line. Besides urging Cheng to come to the Legislative Council to “tell the whole truth”, they are asking her to “seriously consider stepping down”. Only a few radicals are insisting she must quit.

This has prompted a conspiracy theory that the pan-democrats prefer a lame duck justice chief rather than a strong one and the reason is obvious: their camp is facing uphill battles with the government

and Beijing on a raft of immediate contentious issues.

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One of their candidates has been banned from running in the coming by-election; they face the impending national anthem law; and they will also have to deal with the inevitable legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law to safeguard national security.

So, having mishandled her property matters, is Cheng likely to mess up her public duties as well? And is she doomed to continue as a weak justice minister?

It’s too early to jump to a definite conclusion, but the pan-democrats’ wish must be the last thing Beijing wants to see or will allow to happen.

Understandably, one major consideration for governments on both sides of the border to pick Cheng for the job was her once well-recognised reputation in the legal field, which was supposed to help her tackle all these tough tasks.

There is a well-known Chinese saying that applies here: “One who has short braids seized by others must have vulnerable points to be exploited.”

If Cheng is determined to hang on, which is likely to be the case, and both Beijing and Lam maintain their faith in her, she is expected to deal with her “short braids” more wisely.

Whether the pan-democrats can take advantage of the beleaguered justice chief is a bet between them, Cheng and all her supporters.