Tang, a former chief secretary, late yesterday apologized to Hong Kong residents at a packed press conference after newspapers carried front-page stories on the basement, built without approval, which they said included a wine cellar and a theater.
Hong Kong’s next leader will be chosen by a 1,200-member election committee next month. Tang trails Leung Chun-ying by more than 20 percentage points in public-opinion polls and has been criticized for being out of touch at a time when rising property prices and inflation are stoking growing discontent among Hong Kong’s middle class.
“The smartest thing for Tang to do is to pull out of the race, or else it will bring disaster,” said Cheung Chor-yung, senior teaching fellow in public administration at the City University of Hong Kong, who is also one of the voters in the March 25 selection. “Most Hong Kong people won’t accept a person who is not honest and incapable of handling crises.”
Regina Ip, the city’s former secretary for security and a lawmaker, said today she didn’t believe Tang was suitable to lead the city, and she would consider standing in the poll.
Tang won’t consider a withdrawal, Lucy Chan, spokeswoman at Tang’s campaign office, said in a phone interview today.
Late yesterday, Tang said his wife was responsible for the construction of the basement, and he had not intervened in the decision because the couple had been having marital issues at that time. Tang in October said he was forgiven by his wife for a transgression, after the Eastweek magazine published an interview in which the couple were questioned about speculation he had an affair.
“My wife proposed to build this basement,” Tang said. “I know this is an illegal structure, but back at that time we were at a low tide in our marriage and we had communication problems. I feel regret and guilty about it.”
Hong Kong newspapers today carried photos of chaotic scenes outside the property in the city’s Kowloon Tong district, showing photographers and cameramen in cranes attempting to capture pictures of the residence. Apple Daily and Mingpao Daily News said the 2,000-square-foot basement also included a Japanese bath and gymnasium. More than 90 percent of private homes in Hong Kong are smaller than 100 square meters (1,076 square feet), according to a report by the government’s Ratings and Valuation Department in 2011.
“The chief executive hopeful has given the impression that he has not been telling the truth as the fiasco continues to unfold,” the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English newspaper, said in its editorial today. “Once again, he has counted on his wife to defuse the bombshell.”
Tang said he will “fully cooperate” with the government to remove the illegal structures at the property.
Hong Kong’s next chief executive will be picked by an election committee, made up of the city’s richest men, professionals and representatives from China. Tang, Leung and lawmaker Albert Ho are all seeking to get at least 150 nomination votes by the end of the month to stand for election.
Tang was financial secretary before becoming the second- highest ranked official in the city of 7 million residents. His father is Tang Hsiang Chien, who was ranked the 40th-richest person in Hong Kong in 2010 by Forbes Magazine. The younger Tang’s best-known policy success was to abolish duties on wine in 2008, helping the city overtake London and New York as the world’s biggest wine auction market.
Leung, a policeman’s son and former government adviser, has the support of 49.2 percent for the chief executive job, according to a survey published on Feb. 13 by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme. Tang trails with 26.1 percent approval. The poll of 1,000 residents had a margin of error of less than 3 percentage points.
Since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997, the income of the poorest 10 percent of the city’s families has fallen 13 percent. Earnings for the richest 10 percent rose 6.3 percent.
Tang is seen to represent businesses, whereas Leung is more popular as he’s seen to be “more reform-oriented, is more willing to challenge existing interests,” Joseph Cheng, a professor in political science at the City University of Hong Kong said earlier this month.
“If Tang refuses to withdraw from the race, he will bring the biggest headache to Beijing,” City University’s Cheung said. “If Tang can still be elected as the chief with all these scandals, it really shows the ridiculousness of this small- circled election. Now Leung stands a better chance.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sophie Leung in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Panckhurst at email@example.com