23 May 2019
The illegal housing structures controversy will serve as a 'political stress test' for new Justice secretary Teresa Cheng (seen on right, pictured alongside her boss Carrie Lam). Photo: HKEJ
The illegal housing structures controversy will serve as a 'political stress test' for new Justice secretary Teresa Cheng (seen on right, pictured alongside her boss Carrie Lam). Photo: HKEJ

Why the Teresa Cheng scandal could be a blessing in disguise

Senior barrister Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah was sworn into office as Hong Kong’s new Secretary for Justice on Saturday. Her first day in her new job suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a baptism by fire as media reported that her home in Tuen Mun was suspected to have illegal structures.

As the justice secretary, Cheng is charged with the ultimate responsibility of upholding our rule of law under “One Country Two Systems”. However, ironically, she was found allegedly violating the law herself.

The ongoing controversy may not only raise doubts about her integrity, it could also take a considerable toll on the credibility of the entire governing team under Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

After news reports about the alleged illegal structures in her home came to light, Secretary Cheng defended herself against the accusations by stressing publicly that her house was already in its current state when she bought it in 2008, suggesting that she has nothing to do with whatever illegal structure is found in her property.

However, her argument would sound both weak and flimsy even by the standards of an average individual, let alone an elite like her who is both a senior barrister and a chartered civil engineer. As both a legal and civil engineering expert, how could she not have noticed the illegal structures on the premises before she decided to buy them?

The PR disaster was totally avoidable, given that Chief Executive Lam is believed to have approached Cheng in relation to the job offer prior to July 1 last year.

In other words, Cheng, who already knew she was the top candidate for the office of the next justice secretary at least 6 months ago, had plenty of time to make sure whether her home had illegal structures or not, and if yes, to act accordingly and remove them.

As such, in our opinion, Cheng is indeed not so much “lacking vigilance on the matter” — as she put in her statement — but rather being completely negligent, as she only came clean after the media had uncovered the suspected unauthorized structures in her house.

Suffice it to say that she only has herself to blame for the firestorm of controversy she is now getting caught in.

On Sunday some people staged a protest outside the headquarters of the Justice Department, during which the demonstrators denounced the scandal as “a manipulation of power by meritocrats”.

The wording of their denunciation was apparently a response to Lam’s statement earlier on, in which she hit out at the so-called “elitist mentality” embraced by some in the local legal sector over the “co-location arrangement” at the West Kowloon terminus of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.

Whether or not the ongoing controversy surrounding Secretary Cheng is truly a “manipulation of power by meritocrats”, we believe there shouldn’t be any sense of guilt about being an elite.

It is because after all, every sector in society needs elites, particularly the government and the political circles. Even the opposition camp itself needs elites in order to provide oversight of government policies.

Therefore, there is nothing wrong with being an elite at all. However, it would be undoubtedly very wrong when someone poses as an elite and does stupid things. In that case that very person definitely deserves to be condemned by the public.

Nevertheless, the scandal that is now engulfing Cheng could also turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

It is because if she eventually manages to ride it out successfully by sincerely reflecting on her mistakes and putting them right promptly, it could help her enhance her degree of political sensitivity, which is definitely an essential quality for any politically accountable official these days.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 8

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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