Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hubris and a Hidden Cellar

Hong Kong's former chief secretary Henry Tang, right, and his wife Lisa leave a news conference in Hong Kong 16 February, 2012

Henry Tang Ying-yen, a supposed shoo-in to become Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, seems to have buried his political ambition and his public reputation in an illegal wine and entertainment center under his family’s house in Kowloon Tong. Until now, Tang has been the leading candidate to be elected by a 1,200 member selection committee controlled by Beijing to act as Hong Kong’s leader for the next five years. He certainly has the career credentials. He has served as Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary (the #2 guy) in the previous administration and was the Finance Secretary before then. He and his family – which controlled a prominent textile business in China – have close ties to the PRC leadership.

But that was before he stepped into a wine vat filled with a stew of scandal. And he has dragged his wife into it with him. First, he paraded her in front of the press last October when he admitted to having “strayed” in the past through extra-marital relationships. Tearfully, she read a statement that she forgave him. Kobe Bryant could not have done it better.

Since then, he has been questioned about an underground structure underneath the swimming pool at his family’s residential compound at 5-7 York Road, in Kowloon Tong. The press alleged that the structure, thought to be over 2,000 square feet, had not been approved by the government’s Building Department. At first, Tang said that it was simply a “hole in the ground to store things in''. As it seems to be turning out, that “hole” contains a luxury wine cellar, a wine tasting room, a media room, and a Japanese spa. Not your average person’s hole, especially in Hong Kong, where a typical family’s residence is one-quarter the size… Tang then wheeled out his wife in front of the press, placing the blame on her for the structure. He explained that he had transferred full ownership of the 7 York Road property (held through a BVI company) to her in 2010. She, again tearfully, admitted responsibility for this whole mess.

Never mind that Henry Tang is Hong Kong’s patron saint of Hong Kong oenophiles. He owns vineyards in France. He is thought to be the owner of over 100,000 bottles of wine. He was the government official most responsible for abolishing Hong Kong’s 80% wine import duty in early 2008, which has helped Hong Kong become the world’s leading fine wine market.

Maybe he really had no idea that his wife shares his passions as intensely, independent of his knowing. Perhaps she really does share his penchant for skirting the rules and hiding him from her dealings. Then again, maybe not. If leadership begins at the top, then this is a sorry statement about accountability. If character and judgment are unquestioned qualities that leaders should have, then we should seriously question their absence in this case. Hong Kong is a great city. It deserves better. Its leader should be willing to adhere to principles of personal integrity and vision. Or, at the very least, someone who can keep his head above ground, out of the cellar.

Read More At BBC World News