Teresa Cheng

City’s embattled justice chief let off the hook as pan-dems back down on illegal structures scandal

Pro-establishment parties – under a ‘reminder’ from Beijing – continue to back Teresa Cheng and the opposition, for a variety of reasons, is losing its appetite for discrediting her

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 10:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 10:02am

Condemned for weeks over illegal structures on her properties, the city’s justice minister is expected to be let off the hook as pro-establishment lawmakers – under a “reminder” from Beijing – continue to back her while the opposition’s appetite for prolonging the scandal is flagging.

A lawmaker supportive of the government said members of his camp were told to stay in the Legislative Council chamber on Wednesday and Thursday to vote down an expected opposition attempt to grill embattled Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah again on the unauthorised structures.

Cheng last Monday survived two no-confidence motions with the help of pro-establishment lawmakers.

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“Both the Hong Kong government and Beijing’s liaison office [in the city] had reminded us to support [Cheng],” he said, adding that the reminder was issued about two weeks ago.

The lawmaker who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity said he expected the whole scandal to die down if no new facts emerged.

Since taking office on January 6, Cheng has been on the defensive. The Buildings Department found 10 illegal extensions in adjoining luxury homes in Tuen Mun belonging to the former barrister and her engineer husband and subsequently identified 10 more at Cheng’s flat in Repulse Bay and two units in Sha Tin.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had stoutly defended Cheng, but some pan-democrats admitted they would also not grill Lam further during her 30-minute question-and-answer session with lawmakers on Wednesday. Those who spoke to the Post also asked not to be quoted.

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“There is no new motivation to further develop the furore,” one of them said.

“The motion to summon [Cheng] was intended to force her to address Legco. She finally came to a panel meeting and fulfilled our call, regardless of her answers in the meeting,” he said, adding that he also expected the motion to summon her to be vetoed.

Given next week’s Lunar New Year holiday, the lawmaker continued, public sentiment did not seem favourable towards calls for Cheng to step down.

While the Civil Human Rights Front planned to march this Sunday from Wan Chai to Cheng’s office in Admiralty calling for her to quit the post, the lawmaker said a low turnout was expected.

The pro-democracy political parties would send supporters to the march, but they also had to arrange for manpower for the Lunar New Year fair at Victoria Park, a traditional platform for them to gain exposure and seek donations, he said.

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But mainstream pan-democrats’ decision to stop their calls for Cheng to be purged also appeared to be due to other reasons.

Some members of the camp told the Post they had taken stock of the situation and realised that if Cheng resigned from the most politically-charged seat in government, her replacement may be even less appealing.

“Who will be the replacement? The liaison office may recommend a worse candidate for the key post,” another lawmaker said, adding that the crux of the matter was that Cheng had showed poor public relations skills in handling the saga, as illegal structures were common in many homes.

At least two other lawmakers said they considered Cheng an “acceptable” candidate – even though they did not have high expectations of her after the whole saga – and thought it fair to now give her time to settle into her job.

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There was also the issue of the camp’s candidate for the March 11 by-election, Paul Zimmerman, whose Sai Kung home was last week found to have illegal structures.

Zimmerman was running against Tony Tse Wai-chuen in the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape functional constituency­­­ and pan-democrats now had to consider if attacking Cheng further would compromise Zimmerman’s poll chances, a lawmaker said.