House in disorder

Hong Kong politicians hit by home truths

Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng attends a ceremony to mark the beginning of the legal year in Hong Kong

Cheng: now she’s being judged

In the US or the UK political careers are routinely ended because of sexual transgressions. In Hong Kong, a city where most of the population is obsessed with property ownership, it’s only fitting that the territory’s politicians often get felled by their real estate: specifically when revelations emerge that their houses have illegal structures.

Concerns over building work hit a frenzy in 2012 when, Henry Tang, the bookie’s favourite to win the election for Hong Kong’s top political job, was found to have illegally built a huge basement at his luxurious residence (the basement featured a wine cellar and a tasting room).

The embarrassing revelation led to Tang’s defeat in the chief executive election although the winner, CY Leung, later also confessed there were unsanctioned structures at his own home.

Leung survived the public outrage because his infringements – such as an outdoor wooden trellis – were deemed less serious. But ever since, according to Hong Kong media, the government now asks all senior officials – before appointing them to office – to clarify if they have any illegal structures.

This “integrity check”, however, has not prevented the newly appointed Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng from joining the long list of Hong Kong politicians hit by an illegal structure scandal. Worse still, Cheng is formerly a chartered engineer and a barrister specialising in construction law.

The new row unfolded on Cheng’s first day in office last month, as the floor plan of her home became the front-page story in a couple of local newspapers. The new justice secretary’s three-storey villa was found to have several unauthorised extensions including a large basement and a glass canopy by her garage.

As journalists flocked to send drones over her home (five year ago they hired cranes to peek into Tang’s house), it was soon exposed that her husband, also a senior engineer, had likewise enhanced his own neighbouring house with a number of illegal works too – most notably a secret corridor leading to his wife’s residence.

Cheng apologised (repeatedly) during her first month in office while emphasising the building works in question had existed before she bought her house in 2008. She claimed that she’d been too busy with public service to properly oversee the issue. That excuse might have sufficed – but then further revelations emerged that two of her other properties also have illegal structures.

To be fair, around one in four properties in Hong Kong contain an illegal structure, the South China Morning Post claims. Should the government conduct a thorough inspection of every house in the city, chances are a good number of them would feature a huge illegal basement.

Nevertheless Cheng’s reputation has been hampered.

“It seems [Cheng] was trying to evade her responsibility,” said Andrew Wan, a pro-democracy member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, noting that it is very hard for Cheng to justify her ignorance over the issue given her professional expertise. In fact, Cheng was one of the authors of Construction Law and Practice in Hong Kong, a textbook for law students. From 2000 to 2006, she also chaired an appeal tribunal that dealt with disputes relating to the city’s building laws.

Holden Chow, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, also showed little sympathy with Cheng, accusing her of lacking political sensitivity. Other legislators question her ability to now uphold Hong Kong’s rule of law (her post makes her the city’s top legal official).

Lawrence Lok, a senior counsel, went as far as suggesting that Cheng should be dismissed because she could no longer push through any government policies or new laws with authority or credibility.

But it now looks like she will not be the last to be caught out by controversies relating to illegal structures.

Paul Zimmerman, a Dutch-born Hong Kong politician running in a by-election to represent architects, surveyors and urban planners in the Legislative Council, has taken to his Facebook to make a public apology this week. Why? There are illegal structures in his own home.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.