He was a dark horse for the 2017 chief executive race but Housing and Transport Secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung could find himself out of the running as the bungling of the cross-border high-speed rail link raises doubts about his integrity and judgment.
Appearing at a Legislative Council railways sub-committee Monday, Cheung offered a belated apology for his mishandling of the serious failures in the construction of the Hong Kong section of a rail line linking up with the nationwide high-speed network.
Cheung has been accused of lying to legislators about possible delays to the rail line. He told legislators in November that all was on track, only for line’s builder’s to admit in April 15 that the project was not expected to be completed until 2017, two years later than planned.
He sidestepped questions Monday about whether he will resign but hinted that he had not ruled out the possibility. “I feel remorseful for the incident. After years in politics, I understand that politicians have to face various challenges and choices. I have been reflecting.”
Cheung boss, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, also was also elusive about whether Cheung should stand down. Asked if Cheung should resign, Leung said Cheung has given an account and handled the issue seriously. He has done his job as minister, Leung said.
Cheung said that after a briefing by his aides, he planned to tell legislators in November that the project could be delayed but he decided to stick to the original completion timetable after talking to Jay Walder, the chief executive officer of the Mass Transit Railway Corp. (MTR), on the eve of the meeting.
Walder insisted they would be able to catch up with the original timetable.
Cheung said he gave the railway operators the “benefit of doubt.” With hindsight, he said, he should have notified the legislature. He admitted a mistake in judgment, stressing that he acted in good faith and had not lied.
Cheung did not aid his cause by expressing “shock” and “surprise” over the April 15 notification of the delay. It is clear from exchanges between MTR and Cheung that the minister was aware of the potential holdup to the HK$67 billion project. The shock and surprise gave the impression that he was in the dark about the construction hiccup.
In addition to Cheung, MTR chairman Raymond Chien, Walder and project director Chew Tai-chong, took turns to say sorry at the Monday meeting. Although Chew has said he will step down before his contract ends, there is still pressure for heads to roll.
Michael Tien Puk-sun, a pro-establishment legislator, called on Walder to resign. His party colleague, Regina Ip, who sits on the policy-making Executive Council, lambasted Cheung for his naivety. Democratic Party legislator Wu Chi-wai said he plans to move a no-confidence motion against Cheung.
Democrat legislator Helena Wong Pik-wan said lawmakers should invoke the Powers and Privileges Ordinance to investigate cover-up claims.
A prominent political scientist, Cheung has an impeccable record in public service and good public image. He was a founding vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, a legislator and the head of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, among other positions. He is one of the more popular ministers in Leung’s team and plays a key role in overseeing Leung’s housing policy.
But his popularity took a hit when he rejected calls FOR WHAT?? by families of the victims of the 2012 Lamma ferry collision in which 39 people died. He argued that disclosure of the report would jeopardize the ongoing criminal investigation. The families said Cheung was being unjust to the dead and too lenient to errant marine officials.
Judging from the reaction to the apologies from Cheung and the top MTR brass Monday, it is clear the remorse is not enough to satisfy the media, politicians and society at large.
The government and the MTR board have announced separate investigations into the deficiencies at both the project and management levels. But since the findings are still some time off, calls for the heads of those responsible are unlikely to die down soon.
Housing is a vital part of Leung’s policy master plan and Cheung’s departure would be the last thing the Chief Executive wants, not least because of the political ramifications of letting a key minister go. But the reality is that Cheung may already be a liability. Legislators look set to further pursue the questions about the delay, raising the prospect of more leaks about the affair and putting more pressure on Cheung and Leung.
The political scene us already heating up with the row over political reform and the Occupy Central protest movement. On top of that, two imminent political events – the 25th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown and the pro-democracy July 1 rally – look set to complicate further the socio-political scene.
Leung cut short his holiday to return to work on Monday, fueling speculation that the appearance is due to “railway-gate”. Regardless of his agenda, Leung faces a near-crisis situation and will be watching closely public opinion on the fate of Cheung while contemplating quick action to stem the political fallout from the saga.
– Contact the writer at [email protected]