HONG KONG — Lawmakers grilled Hong Kong’s new justice secretary on Monday over a controversy surrounding illegal additions to her home that has highlighted concerns about rule of law in the semiautonomous Chinese city.
Teresa Cheng faced intense questioning in the legislature about the scandal as well as a separate controversy involving the government’s disqualification of a young pro-democracy activist from an upcoming election.
Cheng, who has refused to step down and denies she lacks integrity, becomes the latest senior government official over the years to be dogged by a property-related scandal that underlines rising public distrust.
The 59-year-old Cheng, a veteran arbitrator, was tapped to be the city’s top law enforcement officer less than four weeks ago.
Soon after, a steady trickle of local media reports revealed that her suburban mansion was riddled with unauthorized additions, including a rooftop hut and a basement.
News of wealthy officials making illegal additions to their homes has stoked public anger over widening inequality in the Asian financial center, which has been ranked the world’s most expensive housing market.
The controversy deepened after Cheng disclosed that the house next door was owned by her husband, founder of an engineering firm, and was also full of illegal additions.
Things got worse when it emerged that Cheng authored a textbook on local construction law and represented clients involved in court disputes over illegal building works.
Cheng said the house already had the additions when she bought it and she was too busy to read the purchase documents.
“It doesn’t matter how many apologies you offer. You’re still a secretary of justice that breeches the law knowingly,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Chui.
Opposition lawmakers said leeway for Cheng contrasts with the government’s stepped-up efforts against the city’s pro-democracy movement.
On Saturday, election officials disqualified Agnes Chow, a member of democracy leader Joshua Wong’s Demosisto party, from the March election based on her party’s platform advocating “self-determination” for Hong Kong.
“You want us to give you a chance, but who would give a chance to Agnes Chow,” said lawmaker Roy Kwong.
Cheng repeatedly apologized but said she has “determination to perform my duties as secretary of justice.”