24 March 2019
According to an opinion poll, Teresa Cheng has the lowest approval rating among the top three high-ranking officials in the Hong Kong government. Photo: HKEJ
According to an opinion poll, Teresa Cheng has the lowest approval rating among the top three high-ranking officials in the Hong Kong government. Photo: HKEJ

Cheng has a long way to go before any popularity rebound

With Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah continuing to face questions over her “Villa-gate” saga, we had three pieces of news on Monday in relation to the embattled justice secretary.

First, the notoriously busy Cheng suddenly managed to squeeze some time out of her tight schedule and attend a special meeting of the Legco Panel on Administration of Justice and Legal Services, during which she apologized once again to the public for the illegal structures found in her house.

Second, according to the latest poll conducted by the Chinese University, Cheng only got 38.9 marks in her approval rating, the lowest among the three highest ranking officials of the SAR government.

And third, when asked by reporters whether the Department of Justice had played any part in banning Agnes Chow Ting of Demosistō party from running in the upcoming Legco by-elections, Cheng insisted, initially, that “it wasn’t my decision, nor was it Carrie Lam’s”.

However, she later changed her tone and admitted that she did give advice to the returning officer in charge of the Hong Kong Island constituency over the issue.

In contrast to the treatment meted out to Chow, ousted lawmaker Edward Yiu Chung-yim, also a key pan-democrat, was on Monday given the green light, albeit at the last minute, to run in the Kowloon West constituency.

The disqualification of Chow has provoked an uproar among the public as well as the pro-democracy camp, with people demanding an explanation from the justice secretary for the discrimination.

Even though in theory the power to decide who can or cannot run in the local elections rests with the returning officer, everybody knows that the Secretary for Justice has a key role to play here, as the returning officer would always seek legal advice from the Justice Department before making any important decision.

After getting grilled intensely by pro-democracy lawmakers about her role in the disqualification of Chow, Secretary Cheng finally acknowledged that she did give advice to the returning officer over the issue.

Given that, it would be logical to infer that Cheng must also have given advice to the returning officer in charge of the Kowloon West constituency over the candidacy of Edward Yiu.

And that automatically begs the question: why did the Justice Department go easy on Yiu but acted tough on Chow?

Chow was disqualified on grounds of her political affiliation. It is because she is a founding member of the Demosistō, which advocates “democratic self-determination” in its party constitution, which, according to the returning officer, could violate the Basic Law.

As a matter of fact the government simply declared Chow’s candidacy null and void outright without giving her any opportunity to argue or explain.

In comparison, Yiu was treated in a totally different way. According to him, he received an email from the returning officer asking him four questions, including whether or not he accepts the interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. And then on Monday afternoon, his candidacy was cleared.

As the DOJ has differentiated between Chow and Yiu over their candidacy, it will inevitably raise doubts about the department’s impartiality, and create an impression among the public that Chow was treated unfairly.

And although Cheng has allowed Yiu to run, the pro-democracy camp certainly wouldn’t be grateful to the justice chief for her selective leniency, nor would it be of any help in improving her popularity.

Things might actually go from bad to worse for her. If Au Nok-hin, the incumbent Southern District Councilor who has claimed to be the replacement for Chow, is banned from running again, Cheng will definitely have a lot more to explain.

If that scenario happens, it would inevitably cast a further shadow of suspicion over Cheng’s impartiality and her dedication to defending our rule of law, thereby taking another heavy toll on her popularity which is already at rock bottom.

It appears there is still a long way to go before our justice secretary can revive her popularity.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 30

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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