Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has urged tolerance for her new justice secretary, who is under fire over unauthorised structures discovered at her property. Lam was speaking on Thursday at her first legislative question-and-answer session of the year.
Teresa Cheng faced criticism from several pro-democracy lawmakers during the session, who claimed that she had broken the law.
Following media revelations, the Buildings Department confirmed the existence of unauthorised structures at Cheng’s Tuen Mun house on Tuesday, including a 500 square feet basement. Cheng said they existed before she bought the house in 2008, but mortgage documents at the time made no mention of the structures.
“I understand that the public has expectations of senior officials,” said Lam in response to a question on the matter from the Democratic Party’s Roy Kwong.
“I understand that it seems unacceptable nowadays to claim that ‘I forgot’, ‘I’m very busy’, ‘I wasn’t alert enough’ or ‘I wasn’t sensitive enough’,” said Lam, referring to how Cheng defended herself at a Wednesday evening press conference.
“But I hope everyone treats this matter with greater tolerance. We’re talking about 2008 here… The policy for dealing with illegal structures have changed a lot over the past decade.”
Lam said that, in the past, the government only dealt with illegal structures that posed an immediate danger, and as secretary for development from 2007 to 2012, she began dealing with structures that were illegal but not dangerous. She added that people used to be less alert about unauthorised structures.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Michael Tien suggested that future government “integrity screenings” for ministerial candidates should include inspections for possible illegal structures.
“After this incident, the temperature in the kitchen has risen,” responded Lam. “I’m not even certain if we will be able to find a candidate in the future on which to conduct an ‘integrity check’ at all.”
Private sector work
Lam said that Cheng is facing a lot of pressure due to being appointed in a very short time. As secretary for justice, she has been allowed to quickly complete around six arbitration cases that she started when she was in private practice.
“She says that any income after January 6 – when she took office – will be handed over to [the government], which we will of course give to charity.”
Pro-democracy lawmakers told reporters after Lam’s session that they would invite Cheng to the legislature again to answer questions.
“A lot of questions have not been answered, particularly this mortgage document,” said the Civic Party’s Tanya Chan. “With her legal knowledge and training, she should know what she was doing.”
Chan alleged during the session that if the justice secretary knew about the illegal structures, but did not reveal them in her mortgage document, she could have violated Section 18 of the Theft Ordinance by obtaining bank credit with “deception.”
As Lam left the chamber, pro-democracy lawmaker Ray Chan shouted “Teresa Cheng step down” amid a media scrum.
It is the third question-and-answer session that Lam has attended since taking office as chief executive. She last went to the legislature in October last year.