The man widely seen as Hong Kong’s next leader is mired in a controversy over a luxurious, but illegal, basement extension that’s eating away at his already-low popularity rating and raising concern among his backers in Beijing.
Henry Tang (唐英年) said he was sorry, but resisted growing pressure yesterday to drop out of the race after reporters unearthed sketches that revealed the unauthorized 200m2 underground addition included plush features such as a wine cellar and home theater.
Local newspapers dubbed it the “underground palace” and splashed blueprints and photos on their front pages of the house, which is owned by Tang’s wife and set in a walled compound in an upscale Kowloon neighborhood. Reporters mobbed the street outside on Thursday, with several renting cranes to get a better view of a courtyard swimming pool with a glass floor that looks into the basement extension.
Tang blamed the oversight on his wife, Lisa Kuo (郭妤淺), who tried to hold back tears on Thursday as she stood next to him while apologizing in front of reporters. Kuo said she oversaw the planning and renovation of the house because her husband was too busy with work. The couple said the renovation was carried out while their marriage was at a “low ebb.”
“I apologize to all Hong Kong people,” an emotional Tang told a hastily convened press conference late on Thursday. “It was my wife’s idea and I knew they were illegal. Since we were experiencing a low ebb in our marriage … I did not handle the matter swiftly. I take full responsibility for the incident.”
However, the well-known wine lover said he should be judged by his business-friendly manifesto.
Legal experts said he could face jail over the scandal, making him ineligible for office.
His comments left many wondering if the man believed to be Beijing’s favorite for the chief executive job has what it takes to lead the territory.
“Sells out wife for power,” screamed the headline in the widely read Apple Daily. The anti-Beijing Chinese-language newspaper said Tang’s credibility had been “buried” in the “underground palace.”
A 1,200-member Electoral Committee packed with pro-Beijing elites will choose the next chief executive on March 25, replacing Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權), whose mandate is ending.
“He has lost almost all his credibility in the whole thing, he lied every day,” Chinese University of Hong Kong political scientist Ma Ngok (馬嶽) said, referring to Tang’s earlier description of the den as a humble storage space. “It appears that he’s still trying to canvass Beijing’s support, but based on his credibility, it will be very difficult for him to lead Hong Kong for the next five years.”
Tang has not yet formally nominated himself for the chief executive job. The deadline is Feb. 29.
“I think Beijing is in a difficult situation, since there are several days left before the close of the nomination period and it will be too short for them to find a replacement for Tang,” Ma said.
Angry Hong Kongers hit out at Tang on government-run talk radio.
One caller said his credibility was “bankrupt” and several politicians urged him to quit the race.
“Based on his conduct, his personality and his capability, he is not a suitable candidate for the next chief executive,” said Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀), former Hong Kong security minister and chairwoman of the pro-Beijing New People’s Party.