2019/11/16 - 20:34

【Explainer】Who is Teresa Cheng and why is she so hated by HKers

立場讀者 Zac 提供

立場讀者 Zac 提供

Cheng epitomises all that’s gone wrong with the pro-Beijing ruling class

Yesterday, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng was surrounded by a group of protesters in London, when she fell to the ground and got hurt. The Chinese government reacted angrily at the incident. But in Hong Kong, people are laughing at her and saying she deserves it. This is not surprising, as Cheng is the most unpopular official of the HK government. According to a recent survey by the Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI), an often-quoted polling outfit, her approval rate is only 7%, while 77% want her go. In fact she’s so unbearable that not only do the pro-democrats, even pro-Beijing lawmakers and media have been calling for her resignation for some time. So who is Cheng and why is she so unpopular?

(Just to play safe, I’m not condoning violent behaviour against her, I’m just explaining why people would think so. Besides, it’s not clear whether protesters had pushed her or had she just tripped over herself. By the way “falling onto the street” is itself a common Cantonese swear phrase, people would often curse someone, unpopular officials included, to “fall onto the street”, which is another reason people are laughing at this incident.)


Cheng is a barrister and expert on arbitration, who received her degree from the University of London, and had been an adviser to the HK and Chinese government on various legal issues. She was selected to become Secretary for Justice after her predecessor Rimsky Yuen resigned over health issues.

On the face of it, she seems a qualified candidate, but a scandal immediately broke out which led the public to question her integrity and suitability for the job. On the day right before she’s scheduled to take office, newspapers exposed that her house in Tuen Mun district was illegally expanded. Given HK’s sky high property prices, where most people can’t afford a decent accommodation, expanding one’s home illegally and thereby evading the expensive taxes if one were to legally apply for an expansion is a sensitive issue, especially for a public figure. In 2012, then Chief Secretary (gov’s no. 2) Henry Tang failed to be elevated to become Chief Executive after he was exposed of having done so. CY Leung who beat Henry Tang for the job, also saw a sharp drop in popularity after he too was found to had done the same.

What is more, later reports revealed that not only her home in Tuen Mun, three other properties that she owned were also illegally expanded. Another property under the name of her husband was illegally expanded as well. Cheng apologised, but defended by saying she was too busy and focused on her work as a barrister that she didn’t pay attention to the details when she bought the properties.

The public didn’t buy her excuse. First, she’s a barrister, and she claims she’s not attentive to details. Second, she claims she had forgotten to look into the details of her properties, but she remembered to go through special steps to avoid a levy on people owning more than one property, a tax that aims at reducing speculative transactions in the property market. Third, there had been so many scandals related to illegal expansions over the years, like Tang and Leung just mentioned, how can you not pay attention. Fourth, her husband is an engineer, again a job that should be familiar with laws concerning properties. Last and critically, Cheng had been the chairperson of a government commission that deals with illegal constructions, so she’s the expert on the subject.

People are saying, how can we trust her as Secretary for Justice when she broke the law and is clearly lying? But despite these failings, Chief Executive Carrie Lam continued to support her, saying she’s the best person for the job, and she took office anyway. According to the first HKPORI poll after she took office, her approval rate was only 19%, instantly making her one of the most unpopular figure in the government.

Why doesn’t Lam just appoint another person instead? She may not have many good candidates to choose from, or to put it in another way, few good lawyers would want to take up the job. Given the Chinese government’s growing assertiveness and encroachment on HK’s freedoms, it’s clear that the Secretary for Justice would only have to do more dirty work. Cheng’s predecessor Rimsky Yuen oversaw the Umbrella movement and related events in his term, when he prosecuted protesters for rioting, a charge that was last used half a century ago, and ejected elected pro-democracy lawmakers from their seats by accusing them of not having taken their oaths properly.

The flip side of this is, the Chinese government will only entrust the job to someone who is loyal enough and will do whatever dirty work is required of him/her anyway, which again disqualifies a lot of competent candidates with integrity. Cheng has shown her loyalty by going further than Yuen. Not only did she oversee a jump in cases of prosecution of activists and protesters, she helped introduce an extradition bill (now abandoned) that indirectly allows the Chinese government to extend its jurisdiction into HK, a clear breach of the “One country two Systems” principle, and devised a ban on mask-wearing during protests, evoking emergency powers given to colonial-era governors inherited by the Chief Executive, an extraordinary move not seen in decades. She is sometime derided as Secretary for Injustice.

So in the eyes of Beijing, loyalty is put before competence and other merits. Even if you have personal flaws, are widely unpopular, frankly just a burden on the government, you still keep your position as long as you’re loyal and will do whatever Beijing tells you. In fact Beijing might even prefer people with weaknesses, thinking they are therefore more dependent on Beijing for their careers and more loyal.

Which is why Cheng is not the only scandal-ridden member of the government. Financial Secretary Paul Chan and his wife are known to have bought apartments, subdividing them into smaller units and renting them out. A typical HK flat is already small, so subdivided units are even smaller. They’re called “coffin-homes” since they can be that small, just enough for someone to squeeze in and sleep, and of course many of these coffin-homes are in bad conditions. Paul Chan’s nickname is thus “coffin-home Paul”. And the Financial Secretary is partly responsible for land and housing, isn’t there a glaring conflict of interest? In fact, when he was first appointed by CY Leung, the predecessor of Carrie Lam, he was appointed as Secretary for Land Development. He has been one of the most unpopular officials over the years (approval rate usually in the twenties), but he still got promoted to Financial Secretary when Lam took over. Scandal-ridden? No worries, you may even get a promotion! His unpopularity is only surpassed 
by Teresa Cheng lately.

Carrie Lam herself is involved in another type of controversy, her husband and kids all got British citizenship. While it’s not uncommon among HKers to have dual citizenship, because many of us do not trust the Chinese government and would like to have an exit option in case of emergency, this would be extremely hypocritical for pro-Beijing politicians, who are lecturing us to embrace China and be patriotic all the time, meanwhile criticising Western governments. The speaker of the legislature Andrew Leung had British citizenship too, and he only gave it up upon becoming speaker, a position that the law stated cannot be held by someone with dual citizenship. You guess, if Lam had had British citizenship too.

This is becoming a systemic problem in HK, that politicians and officials are promoted not based on competence but loyalty to Beijing, which results in a bunch of deeply despised incompetents governing HK. Because the system is not democratic, no matter how hated they are they can still stay on the job, even promoted. And many of these pro-Beijing elites are profiting from the ridiculously high property prices, while ordinary people are suffering. Whereas if an ordinary person is caught illegally expanding houses and renting out coffin-homes he/she may be fined or even prosecuted, a Beijing loyalist can get away with it. The hypocrisy and injustice is just so blatant. No wonder HKers are so outraged at the ruling class and system.


作者 Medium