More than half of Hong Kong people say Henry Tang, the front-runner to be the city’s next leader, should end his election campaign because of a scandal over an illegal addition to one of his homes, according to a poll.
Tang blamed his wife for building a 2,200 square foot basement in a Kowloon Tong house that was in her name, though connected to a property he owns in the upmarket 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 widening scandal threatens to upset what was expected to be a smooth transition from retiring Chief Executive Donald Tsang to a candidate backed by the majority 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 the leader.
“It wouldn’t reflect well on them to ignore Hong Kong’s public opinion,” said Willy Wo-lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, adding that the Beijing leadership may switch its support to Leung Chun-ying. “Henry Tang and C.Y. Leung are both acceptable candidates to Beijing. If C.Y. Leung’s popularity improves, then Beijing may change their support.”
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 today.
The 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 was carried out before the government said yesterday its officials are conducting a probe into whether Tang and his wife submitted false documents when submitting planning documents for the home. Hong Kong newspapers, including Apple Daily and the South China Morning Post, have reported that the basement contained a wine cellar, wine-tasting room, movie theater and Japanese-style bath.
More than 90 percent of private homes in Hong Kong are smaller than 100 square meters (1,076 square feet), according to the government’s Ratings and Valuation Department in 2011.
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 published in Hong Kong newspapers show skylights in the bottom that let light into the underground chamber.
The allegations follow an admission of an extramarital affair and add to criticism Tang is out of touch with a populace squeezed by unaffordable housing and a widening wealth gap. The former chief secretary and textiles heir yesterday said he won’t pull out of the contest.
Tang also confirmed that he had visited the Chinese government division that oversees relations with the territory, which is administered under the system handed over by former colonial ruler Britain under Chinese sovereignty. He declined to give any details on what was said at the meeting.
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 yesterday.
If the probe finds no criminal offense has been committed, Tang would join the many thousands of people in Hong Kong that have erected unauthorized building works. Tsang and Secretary for Education Michael Suen also faced accusations last year of having illegal structures on their property.
Tang said Feb. 16 his wife was responsible for the construction of the basement, and he hadn’t intervened as the couple had marital issues at the time. Tang in October said he was forgiven by his wife for a transgression, after Eastweek magazine published an interview in which they were questioned about speculation he had an affair.
Tang was financial secretary before becoming the second-highest ranked official in the city. His father is Tang Hsiang Chien, who 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.
Regina Ip, the former secretary for security, said Feb. 17 that Tang wasn’t suitable to lead the city, and she would consider standing. Jasper Tsang, chairman of the Legislative Council, also said that he will consider running.
All candidates need to get at least 150 nominations from election committee members by the end of the month to stand. The poll is the last under the committee system, with Hong Kong moving toward universal suffrage by 2017.
“If Tang can still be elected as the chief with all these scandals, it really shows the ridiculousness of this small-circled election,” Cheung Chor-yung, senior teaching fellow in public administration at the City University of Hong Kong and one of the voters in the March 25 selection, said last week.