Former Hong Kong minister Anthony Cheung reveals he twice considered resigning over controversial high-speed rail link
Anthony Cheung says he didn’t want to drag the whole government down with him as pressure mounted over delays and cost overruns
Hong Kong’s former transport chief Anthony Cheung Bing-leung has revealed that he had twice considered resigning amid delays and budget overruns at the contentious HK$84.4 billion cross-border high-speed rail link.
In an interview with the Post about major controversies faced by the last government, Cheung, the former secretary for transport and housing, also said that it was civil servants, rather than a Democratic Party lawmaker as widely believed, who brought a lead-in-water scandal into focus.
Many major incidents, including ride-hailing firm Uber’s failure to get permission to operate in the city, are discussed in Cheung’s two latest Chinese-language books which look at his five years in government, with one on housing and the other on transport.
Cheung, who returned to academia after leaving the government last year, also wrote that he did not expect to be handling transport policies, as he was first invited by then chief executive Leung Chun-ying to join his administration as head of a “housing, planning and lands bureau” under a proposed government restructuring. But the Legislative Council did not pass the restructuring plan.
Rumours swirled in May 2014 that Cheung had told Leung he intended to resign as the government was facing huge pressure over delays to the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.
The MTR Corp had earlier announced that completion of the project had been pushed back by two years to 2017 and its budget had snowballed to about HK$71.5 billion from HK$65 billion.
Without going into specific circumstances, Cheung said he had discussed his resignation with Leung.
“I told CY that he should be prepared,” Cheung said. “If the government couldn’t take [the pressure] any more, I’d better not drag the whole government down with me.”
At the time, Cheung said, the government was accused of withholding information about earlier signs of the delay and was urged to take responsibility for the scandal. A later investigation cleared the government, with no individual named or blamed.
“I told CY that there was no justice in politics, and nobody would talk about being fair,” he said. “At that time I witnessed all the fickleness of human nature in the political world.”
The second time he considered resigning was when the government faced legislative gridlock over a request for HK$19.6 billion in extra funding to cover cost overruns at the link.
Failure to gain Legco’s approval for the funding may have meant the mega project being put on hold indefinitely near its completion.
“I had been prepared to take all the responsibility had I to announce a halt to construction,” Cheung said. “I was prepared to resign.”
Legco eventually approved the funding request after 20 hours of discussion.
On excessive lead being found in drinking water in at least 11 public housing estates in 2015, Cheung described the issue as a “failure of the system”.
At least 139 residents, mostly children under six, had lead levels in their blood above the World Health Organisation standard of five micrograms per decilitre.
Up until then, Cheung said, the government and the safety control system did not recognise there was a risk of heavy metal in Hong Kong’s water system.
Although it was legislator Helena Wong Pik-wan who broke the scandal after tests commissioned by the Democratic Party found excessive lead in tap water samples from Kai Ching Estate in Kowloon City, Cheung said civil servants from the Housing Department should claim the main credit.
They took water samples from empty flats not on Wong’s radar, Cheung said. It was from these samples, he said, that officers first found excessive lead, before the government’s high-profile announcement of its findings.
“If our colleagues did not actively conduct tests, this whole thing would have died down without anybody knowing,” he said.
Cheung also defended his decision not to give Uber the green light in Hong Kong despite strong public criticism. He said in his book that it was Uber’s “self-centred arrogance” and insistence that individual drivers should not be subject to a licensing system that stalled its local expansion.
“Isn’t this encouraging everybody to start providing unlicensed taxi services?” Cheung wrote.
Cheung said he once asked an Uber regional manager at an international forum in 2015 if they ever cared about government regulations. He did not reveal the manager’s response.