After half a year of strenuous campaigning effort, Mr. Leung Chun-ying finally was elected as the new Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). But his first week in office was possibly passed miserably with haunting memory of the July 1st Democracy March, in which tens of thousands of local citizens took to the streets in protest, shouting “Mr. Leung Chun-ying stepped down!” All this happened before he even assumed office on July 3rd.
While the recollection of the street demonstration is resentful, the most distressful scene still is the first official meeting with the local media on his first day in office. Traditionally, this meeting is arranged for the new Chief Executive to share his political vision with the media, yet this time, reporters didn’t care to ask the Chief Executive how to carry out his plan of governance, but instead lingered on posing endless questions enquiring how the unauthorized building modification issue of his private residence eventually developed into an impending legal dispute between two major local newspapers. All these are ominous signs of a political storm looming over Mr. Leung who had deliberately evaded the issue of unauthorized modification of his private residence during his election campaign and triggered a credibility crisis for his personal integrity and even a challenge of his legality in office.
In Hong Kong, unauthorized modifications in private residence are very common practice, albeit illegal, among home owners, mainly because of the lenient enforcement of the law by the Housing Authority against breaches of building regulations in domestic flats and houses. Once discovered or reported, illegal structures are simply ordered to remove or dismantled with little risk of being prosecuted. It is for this reason that many flat owners do not view illegal modifications seriously, though they all know the unauthorized structures in their residences are illegal. This view is obviously shared not only by ordinary people, but also professionals like Dr Ko Wing-man, M.D., Mr. Bernard Chan, and Mr. Cheung Hok-ming, all being new senior cabinet members appointed by Mr. Leung. Before the election. Mr Leung was merely one of private homeowners, infractions in building codes regarding illegal modifications did not come as a surprise given its widespread nature. What comes as a surprise is that while most of the owners are aware that unauthorized extension is illegal, Mr Leung Chun-ying, who was the former Partner of Jones Lang LaSalle’s, had categorically denied knowledge of the illegality of the modifications in his residence, even after the existence of unauthorized structures had been proven by satellite pictures provided by the media. This is how a simple infarction of building codes evolved into a political crisis of credibility and integrity.
Credibility and integrity of senior government officials have recently called into question and become a major public concern in Hong Kong. Earlier this year, the seemingly honest former Chief Executive Donald Tsang was exposed by the media to have received privileges and undue benefits from rich business tycoons in Hong Kong and China, which led to the allegations of suspected corruption by the local political parties and subsequent enquiries by the HKSAR’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Soon after, on March 29, 2012, the former Chief Secretary for Administration, Mr. Rafael Hui, and Mr. Thomas and Raymond Kwok, Co-Chairman and Managing Director of Sun Hung Kai Properties Limited (SHKP), were arrested by ICAC on suspicion of offences under the prevention of Bribery Ordinance and the offence of misconduct in public office. SHKP is one of the four major property developers in Hong Kong and Mr. Hui is widely believed to be detained for taking hefty kickbacks related to land sales in billions of HK dollars.
While we are all aware that no one is perfect in this world, but the Hong Kong society at large still expects a much higher standard of morality of politicians and government officials than ordinary people. Hence, acts of violations regarding unauthorized structures in private residences by officials should never be tolerated. Albeit such violation is much less serious than corruption, it is nonetheless considered detrimental to the prestige of the Government. In this regard, Mr. Suen Ming Yang, the former Secretary for Education, is the first senior official in the former HKSAR cabinet of knowingly violating the building regulation when he was Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, by ignoring the orders issued by the Housing Department against the illegal structures in his residence. Most recently, Mr. Henry Tang, former Secretary for Administration, then candidate running for the new Chief Executive campaign, was exposed by the media of suspected illegal residential extension as well, a political blunder causing him a final loss of the election. In view of these precedents, Mr. Leung Chun-ying, brazenly issued denial of having any illegal structures in his residence, but still had no political astuteness to remove them immediately after his won the election.
In analyzing his unusual insensitivity towards the above sensitive issue, it is widely believed that Mr. Leung considered the illegal structures in his own residence a matter of absolute privacy which no one would be able to discover. This is why several weeks after his election, he was utterly shocked to learn that there were reporters snooping around and shooting pictures of his mansion in Victoria Park. When the first news surfaced in a local newspaper with photos bearing the appearance of an illegal glass structure in Leung’s residence, the Chief Executive elected did not hesitate to make a phone call himself to the Editor-in-Chief of the media, apparently just to clarify the fact that the structure discovered by the reporters was merely a “glass shed”. But there were speculations in the local media that the content of Leung’s call to the media involves some subtle deal in form of a “friendly reminder”. The real inside story of that call is so far unknown to the public, but his very attempt to call the media direct has already forged an impression of imposing political pressure and impeding freedom of the press. The speculative existence of some “friendly reminder” has caused one major newspaper to launch a libel lawsuit against another major newspaper, which will eventually lead to a court confrontation with request of Mr. Leung Chun-ying to testify. By that time, the inside story of this scandal may be revealed at the expense of Mr. Leung’s credibility and integrity.
Presently, Mr. Leung Chun-ying is fully aware of the seriousness of this affair and has been trying not to aggravate the matter further by dodging media enquiries using excuses such as “waiting for professional assessment”. However, the tactics of evading questions and dragging feet, only result in casting more doubts about his credibility and integrity, an issue now not only catching the attention of local media but also causing concerns of the Legislative Council, and providing further incentive for ICAC to launch an investigation.
In view of the fact Mr. Leung has won the election essentially by taking advantage of gaffes of his rival Henry Tang on illegal building issue during the election campaign, while in fact he had six illegal structures built in his residence, including a huge, luxurious but unauthorized basement extension, Mr. Albert HO, head of the Democratic Party, believed he had enough legal ground to challenge the legitimacy of Mr. Leung’s election in court. Recently, even many of Mr. Leung’s political alliances from the pro-establishment camp have alienated of him, and publicly admitted that there is a real issue of credibility and integrity with their new Chief Executive. All these could possibly turn out to be the most serious crisis in the political career of the embattled new Chief Executive of HKSAR. In Go game, there is an old saying which says: “One move wrong, the winning chance is gone! ” Alas, despite of all his years in politics, Mr. Leung apparently has not yet learnt from the proverb: “Honesty is the best policy”.