Tang Ignores Calls to Quit Hong Kong Chief Executive Contest

Henry Tang
Henry Tang, Hong Kong's former chief secretary, leaves a press conference in Hong Kong on Feb. 17, 2012. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

Henry Tang, embroiled in a scandal over an illegal basement built at his wife’s property, submitted a formal bid to run for Hong Kong’s top leadership post today, ignoring sinking poll ratings and calls to drop out.

The city’s former chief secretary said he obtained nominations from 379 representatives on the 1,200-member election committee. Tang, 59, whose candidacy is backed by business executives, apologized Feb. 16 after newspapers carried front-page stories on the basement, which they said included a wine cellar and a theater.

More than half of Hong Kong people polled by the South China Morning Post had said Tang should quit the race to be chief executive after he blamed his wife for the 209-square-meter (2,250-square-foot) basement. Tang was already trailing Leung Chun-ying, a former government adviser, in public-opinion polls, and some members of the election committee picking Hong Kong’s top leader have expressed doubts about his suitability.

“I can’t imagine the consequences if a man whose integrity has gone bankrupt continues to take part in the election,” said Cheung Chor-yung, a 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. “How could he govern Hong Kong? Many may take to the streets before he can start his term.”

Business Edge

Tang held an edge with the business lobby in the election committee, with HSBC Holdings Plc’s Asia head Peter Wong and former Hong Kong Monetary Authority Chief Executive Joseph Yam supporting him. All candidates need to get at least 150 nominations from the committee members by the end of the month to stand.

Tang told a news briefing today he would not give up his candidacy. This will be the last time the city of 7.1 million residents picks its leader by committee before it moves to universal suffrage in 2017.

“My political platform is practical, and I hope to convince all that I’m the most suitable candidate,” Tang said at the briefing, where he got the backing of Bank of East Asia Chairman David Li. “Negative news will continue to revolve around me, but I will boldly face all this.”

Wine Cellar

Hong Kong newspapers, including Apple Daily and the South China Morning Post, reported that the basement, built without government approval, 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 and denied the reports of luxurious fittings, the Post reported.

“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 last night. “We seriously demand that Henry Tang quit the election immediately.”

The 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 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.

Approval Rating Drops

A separate poll by the University of Hong Kong conducted earlier last week showed Tang’s approval rating fell 4.8 percentage points to 21.3 percent from Feb. 13. Leung had the backing of 49 percent of respondents.

The scandal opened the way for other politicians to declare interest. Regina Ip, the former secretary for security, said Feb. 17 that she would consider standing, as did Jasper Tsang, chairman of the Legislative Council.

The Liberal Party won’t vote for Tang should he fail to win support from the public, Honorary Chairman James Tien said on a Commercial Radio Hong Kong program today. The party previously said it supported Tang.

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.

Marital Issues

Tang, who admitted he knew about the illegal basement, had said he didn’t intervene in the construction as he was having marital issues with his wife at the time. In October, he said he was forgiven by his wife for a transgression, after the Eastweek magazine published an interview in which the couple was questioned about speculation he had an affair.

“I admit that I handled the family issues in a bad way,” Tang said today. “These are all my fault. I will bear all the responsibility.”

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.

Government Probe

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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