More than half of Hong Kong people say Henry Tang, the front-runner to be the city’s next leader, should end his campaign because of a scandal over an illegal addition to a property owned by his wife, according to a poll.
Tang blamed his wife for a 209 square meter (2,250 square foot) basement in a house that was in her name, though connected to one he owns in the upmarket Kowloon Tong district. A poll commissioned by the South China Morning Post showed 51.3 percent of respondents thought Tang should quit, while 79.5 percent said the incident reflected poorly on his integrity.
The fallout over the basement threatens to upset what was expected to be a smooth transition from outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang to a candidate backed by most of Hong Kong’s business and political elite, as well as the government in Beijing. China’s Communist Party leadership may ditch Tang, 59, who has trailed in surveys gauging support among Hong Kong’s 7.1 million people, most of whom don’t have a say in the 1,200- strong election committee that picks their leader.
“Many believe that a candidate with such low popularity and credibility can’t become the next chief executive,” said Ivan Choi, a politics lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It would detract from the legitimacy of the government, and so people think Beijing will make a new decision.”
Tang said Feb. 18 that he would not bow out of race.
“Henry Tang’s refusal to withdraw from the chief executive election shows his ignorance of residents’ anger and public opinions,” Ng Yut Ming, a spokesman of the Hong Kong Social Workers’ General Union, which holds 28 votes in the committee, said in a statement. “We seriously demand that Henry Tang quit the election immediately.”
Hong Kong newspapers, including Apple Daily and the South China Morning Post, reported that the basement contained a wine cellar, wine-tasting room, movie theater and Japanese-style bath. Tang, a wine lover, said last week the room was used for storage, denied the reports of luxurious fittings, and ruled out opening the room to journalists on the grounds it would invade his privacy, the Post reported.
Tang’s handling of the allegations put a further dent in his public approval ratings following an admission last year of an affair. A separate poll by the University of Hong Kong conducted earlier in the week showed Tang’s approval rating fell 4.8 percentage points to 21.3 percent.
Former government adviser Leung Chun-ying had the backing of 49 percent of respondents. While both Leung and Tang are acceptable candidates to leaders in Beijing, Tang held an edge with the business lobby that exerts key influence through Hong Kong’s system that gives votes to interest groups known as functional constituencies.
Hong Kong business leaders would prefer to see a third candidate appear because they distrust Leung’s more populist policies, Choi said.
Rita Fan, a former Legislative Council president and a member of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, may be a candidate palatable to Tang’s supporters, the South China Morning Post reported yesterday. The Post’s survey put her support at 24.1 percent, though she ruled herself out of the running in November.
Regina Ip, the former secretary for security, said Feb. 17 that and she would consider standing, as did Jasper Tsang, chairman of the Legislative Council.
All candidates need to get at least 150 nominations from election committee members by the end of the month to stand. The election is the last under the committee system, with Hong Kong moving toward universal suffrage by 2017.
The latest opinion survey also showed mounting public disapproval for Tang, with 63.1 percent of 183 people polled on Feb. 17 saying he should end his election campaign, from 44.8 percent of 333 people on Feb. 16.
The poll of 516 people was carried out on Feb. 16 and 17 by the University of Hong Kong on behalf of the territory’s leading English-language newspaper. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, the newspaper said.
Both surveys were carried out before the government said late on Feb. 17 that its officials are conducting a probe into whether Tang and his wife submitted false planning documents for the home.
Tang last week said the illegal work was carried out after the Buildings Department had issued an occupation permit, which verifies there are no illegal structures when a residence is first lived in. Photographs of the property’s swimming pool show skylights in the bottom that let light into the basement, which is twice the size of more than 90 percent of private homes in the city, according to government data.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and other mainland leaders have publicly criticized Tsang and the Hong Kong government for failing to address social “contradictions” that are stoking discontent in the autonomous territory. The Communist Party leadership sees maintaining social harmony as its top priority in a country where corruption, illegal land grabs and pollution spark more than 100,000 mass protests a year.
Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive following the territory’s return to China in 1997, stepped down early after protests by 500,000 people in 2003 and hundreds of thousands in 2004.
The Buildings Department has asked engineers, contractors, and Tang’s wife for information, the government said. Tang and his wife would cooperate with the investigation, he said at a public forum in Hong Kong Feb. 18.
Tang’s father Tang Hsiang Chien was ranked the 40th-richest person in Hong Kong in 2010 by Forbes Magazine. Tang is a wine enthusiast whose best known policy success was to end duties on the beverage in 2008, helping the city overtake London and New York as the world’s biggest auction market for wine.
“This election is a trial run,” said Willy Wo-lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “If C.Y. Leung’s popularity improves, then Beijing may change their support.”
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