Pressure mounts on Hong Kong justice chief Teresa Cheng as lawmakers urge her to come clean on illegal structures
Simmering controversy boils over again as justice department confirms Cheng has another property with unregistered alterations
Pressure is mounting for Hong Kong’s beleaguered justice minister to come clean on her properties as lawmakers across the political spectrum urged her to address the Legislative Council, after the government confirmed on Sunday night she had not one but at least two properties with illegal structures.
City University political scientist Dr Ray Yep Kin-man also described the unfolding scandal as a big public relations disaster, as Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah’s political skills had “completely failed to meet public expectations”.
Cheng was found to have unauthorised structures at her home in Tuen Mun on January 6, the day she took office.
But the simmering controversy escalated on Sunday night as her office, the Department of Justice, issued a statement to confirm that she had a property in Southern District which was also found to have three unregistered alterations which had existed when she bought the apartment.
Among those calling for Cheng to address the city’s legislature as soon as possible were lawmakers from the pro-establishment Liberal Party and New People’s Party, as well as the pan-democratic Civic Party and Democratic Party, with the Democrats’ chairman Wu Chi-wai saying that Cheng should “seriously consider” stepping down, as her performance “has been very disappointing”.
Liberal Party leader Felix Chung Kwok-pan said Cheng should have told people about her property in Southern District on January 6, when she met the public for the first time regarding her Tuen Mun home.
“Cheng handled it very poorly. When the media reported on her Tuen Mun home on [January 6], it was impossible that her property in Southern District did not cross her mind,” he said.
“[The controversy] will affect Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s governance, because the government works as a team … and there will be a lot of issues coming up on the administration of justice and legal services.”
The pro-democracy camp would table a motion on January 31 to summon Cheng to the legislature to testify over the illegal structures at her properties.
They would need to win over at least eight pro-establishment lawmakers to pass the motion, but Chung said his party, with four seats, had yet to discuss whether to back the move.
New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said she would not support the motion because she sits on the Executive Council, which advises the government on policy issues.
But she also described Cheng’s explanations, in a radio interview and through the department’s announcement, on Sunday as “very unsatisfactory”.
“She should have disclosed it before she took office. I don’t know if she told Carrie Lam about that … I hope she got up to speed sooner,” Ip said.
Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin said his group had yet to discuss whether to support the pan-democrats’ motion. But Wong saw the announcement on Sunday as a “continuation” of her earlier disclosures, rather than “a big deal”.
But the Democrats’ Wu said: “There are still many unanswered questions. It really makes people question whether she is capable of doing her job and handling crises.
“It is unfavourable for the justice department and the government as a whole if she continues to stay in her post.”
However, the Civic Party believed that it was more important for Cheng to answer lawmakers’ questions first.
Party deputy chairwoman Tanya Chan said Land Registry records showed that when Cheng bought the Southern District flat in September last year, it was stated in the document that “the purchaser acknowledged that the property contains illegal structures”, and was signed by Cheng’s husband, Otto Poon Lok-to, on her behalf.
She questioned why Cheng did not rectify the problem sooner if she knew there were unauthorised structures when she bought the unit.
One in four Hong Kong properties has illegal structures, but most owners get away with their misdeeds
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu said Cheng had disappointed many because since taking office in July, Lam “had been making much effort to break away from the integrity issues of the previous administration”.
He added: “Lam was relatively successful until Cheng was appointed.”
Legco House Committee vice-chairman Dennis Kwok, of the Civic Party, also told Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung in his weekly meeting on Monday that it was “regrettable” for Cheng to have refused to attend the legislature’s legal services panel that day to answer questions.
On Cheng’s handling, Yep said it showed that the senior barrister was “still unprepared for politics”.
“It’s worrying,” he said. “It seems that she underestimated the people’s expectations of her, and the importance of her role.”
Yep noted that Cheng had sat on various advisory bodies in the past decade, but that “taking part in advisory bodies is very different from being a minister”. He also agreed with lawmakers’ demand for Cheng to go to Legco to answer questions as soon as possible.
Andy Ho On-tat, former information coordinator of then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, said Cheng’s handling of the controversy showed that she was not prepared for the job.
“When I was in government, we would brief the incoming officials on the issues that they had to be careful about. It seems that they have not done that … and those helping Cheng could not see the whole picture [about Cheng’s potential problems] either,” he said.
Executive Council member Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a former legislator, said he felt let down by Cheng. “I’m a bit disappointed because she should have checked clearly when she took office … but I think it is not so serious that she must step down,” he added.