Teresa Chen Yeuk-wah, Hong Kong secretary for justice. Photo: RTHK

In an embarrassing setback to the young administration of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, it turns out that her newly installed secretary for justice, Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, has herself broken the law.

As calls for Cheng’s resignation mount, she refuses to step down, claiming she was too busy with her high-flying legal career to notice the 10 illegal structures in two adjoining homes – together valued at HK$43 million (US$5.5 million), one owned by her and the other by her husband.

Before the scandal over the illegal structures broke, however, few people even knew that Cheng, 59, was married to her neighbor, Otto Poon Lok-to, 78, one of the city’s top engineers. So that has also become a rather awkward matter of interest.

The scandal deepened further with revelations this week that Cheng owns three additional properties, at least one of which – a HK$62 million, 2,000-square foot (186-square-meter) apartment in the exclusive Repulse Bay area on Hong Kong Island – also contains illegal structures.

In the face of rising criticism, Carrie Lam has steadfastly defended her appointment of Cheng, who has been in office less than three weeks, with the dubious argument that Cheng’s transgressions should be forgiven because it’s hard to find qualified people willing to enter “the hot kitchen” of Hong Kong’s increasingly polarized  politics.

Apparently, the chief executive is so desperate to find a competent justice minister in her city of 7.4 million people that she is willing to overlook the fact that Cheng – who, in addition to being a legal eagle, is a chartered engineer – actually co-wrote a book on construction law that deals quite extensively with the very offense she has been found to have committed.

Cheng says the illegal structures in her house in the New Territories – which include a 540-square-foot basement, a rooftop glasshouse and an extended wall on the ground floor – were present when she purchased it in 2008, as were those found at the Repulse Bay apartment she bought last year.

Despite her training and expertise in construction law, she claims she did not notice any illegal additions in these dwellings – an assertion that a growing battery of detractors finds impossible to believe.

Despite Cheng’s training and expertise in construction law, she claims she did not notice any illegal additions in these dwellings – an assertion that a growing battery of detractors finds impossible to believe

For Hong Kong political observers, the scandal harks back to 2012, when the candidacy of Henry Tang Ying-yen, Beijing’s anointed choice to become the next chief executive that year, was torpedoed by media reports of a 2,200-square-foot illegal basement in his Kowloon Tong home that included a wine cellar, home cinema, gym and Japanese bath.

Of course, Tang didn’t help his case when he blamed his wife, Lisa Kuo Yu-chin – whom just the year before he had publicly confessed to cheating on with his administrative assistant during his time (2003-2007) as financial secretary – for organizing the building of what the media dubbed his “underground palace.”

In the end, Tang, once regarded as a shoo-in, lost the small-circle chief-executive election to upstart surveyor Leung Chun-ying, receiving only 27% of the votes from the city’s 1,193-member election committee.

Ironically, illegal structures were later discovered at Leung’s home on The Peak, Hong Kong’s priciest piece of real estate. Like Cheng, he hemmed and hawed and apologized as it became clear that unlawful add-ons were commonplace in houses and apartments throughout the city, albeit for size and luxury Tang’s certainly took the prize.

In another now-choice bit of irony, the development secretary at the time – none other than Hong Kong’s current leader, Lam – announced a crackdown on widespread unauthorized building works like the ones Cheng has admitted to having in her home. Despite Lam’s well-publicized crusade, Buildings Department records indicate at least one in four properties in the city today harbors illegal features – many of those properties, like Cheng’s and her husband’s, located in the sprawling New Territories.

The department has no investigative arm, instead relying on complaints before taking any action against an offender. Prosecution is rare, and penalties are light.

Against that loosely regulated background, Lam and Cheng are hoping the public will let Cheng, who boasts a distinguished legal career specializing in international arbitration and mediation, off the hook. Then she can get on with the challenging business of being justice minister in a city whose mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, is said to be under assault by the pan-democratic opposition to Lam’s government and by many lawyers who see the powers that be in Beijing increasingly interfering in semi-autonomous Hong Kong’s affairs.

A recent edict by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) allowing mainland China’s customs and immigration officials to enforce mainland laws at the Hong Kong terminus of a new high-speed rail link set to open this year is the latest cause for alarm. The Hong Kong Bar Association has called the decision a breach of the “one country, two systems” arrangement laid out in the Basic Law, and pan-democrats have raised the specter of mainland-style arrests and secret detentions at a train station located in the middle of Hong Kong, where freedom of speech and due process under the law are constitutionally guaranteed.

Prior to the NPCSC decision, three student leaders of the pro-democracy Occupy movement that paralyzed key parts of the city for 79 days in 2014 – Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang – were jailed last August after Cheng’s predecessor, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, no doubt encouraged by the central government in Beijing, won a rare government appeal against a more lenient ruling by a lower-court judge.

District Court Judge June Cheung Tin-ngan had handed out community-service sentences to Wong and Law and a suspended jail sentence to Chow for their part in leading the charge of protesters into the forecourt of Government Headquarters, launching the Occupy campaign. Three Court of Appeal judges overturned Cheung’s ruling, meting out prison sentences of six to eight months to the trio.

In an earlier NPCSC incursion into Hong Kong affairs in November 2016, China’s top legislative body issued an “interpretation” of the Basic Law’s oath ordinance, stating that oaths must be taken “solemnly” and “sincerely” and thus paving the way for the disqualification of six opposition lawmakers who had used the Legislative Council’s swearing-in ceremony as a stage for anti-China protests.

These controversies have turned the job of secretary of justice into a hot seat that Lam maintains she was fortunate to fill with someone as talented as Cheng.

For her part, Cheng says she is eager to get on with her job, but she has not yet offered a full or convincing explanation of the unauthorized structures on her properties. Indeed, given her expertise in construction law, her many critics dismiss as preposterous her claim that she was unaware of the existence of these structures and, if she is lying, they say that is an even bigger reason for her to step aside as the city’s chief legal officer.

Daggers are certainly out for Cheng among the pan-democrats, who smell blood in this the first big scandal of a Lam administration, now in its sixth month, that obviously did not even bother to vet Cheng’s background.

For ordinary Hong Kong people, however, the Cheng saga may be less a political and legal drama and more a reminder of the distant and rarefied world occupied by their leaders. In a city where property prices are so high that most people cannot afford to buy their own home but instead must rent shoebox apartments or, if they qualify, wait nearly five years for subsidized public housing, Cheng’s multimillion-dollar property portfolio may seem obscene.

They also might wonder why she kept her 2106 marriage to Poon a virtual secret to everyone except a close coterie of friends that includes the current secretary for transportation and housing, Frank Chan Fan, who was a witness at the wedding, and former justice secretary Elsie Leung Oi-sie, who presided over the ceremony.

Of course, ultimately that’s a private affair, but nonetheless pretty strange behavior for someone about to become such a high-profile public figure.

In any case, as much as the embattled Cheng would like to put this scandal behind her, it keeps getting bigger.

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