Henry Tang illegal basement controversy
Alleged floor plan that surfaced in February 2012 of illegal basement at 7 York Road – Henry Tang's residence.
|Date||February 2012 –|
|Location||7 York Road, Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong|
|Participants||Henry Tang, Lisa Kuo (Tang's wife), Government of Hong Kong|
The Henry Tang illegal basement controversy (Chinese: 唐英年大宅僭建風波) was an event that began on 13 February 2012 over the unapproved basement extensions of two adjoining residences in Kowloon Tong owned by Henry Tang, a 2012 Hong Kong Chief Executive election candidate. Despite the impact on Tang's credibility, the scandal did not prevent his nomination on 20 February that year.
Tang, who is known as a wine aficionado, had been previously been asked by the Ming Pao newspaper in October regarding the existence of a secret wine cellar not shown in plans submitted to the Buildings Department. Tang denied having a wine cellar.
Following media allegations of illegal structures at the Kowloon Tong residence, Tang backtracked and admitted on 13 February 2012 that there was an unauthorized structure at his home at No. 5A York Road in the form of a canopy above the garage. According to Tang an underground garage at his family's adjacent property (7 York Road) was there at the time of purchase, and had since been deepened "for storage". He said it was not used as a wine cellar.
Alleged floor plan
On 15 February, Chinese-language newspaper Sharp Daily published a set of floor plans purporting to be of the 2,400-square-foot illegal basement at one of Tang's properties comprising a store room, fitness room, changing room, cinema and wine-tasting room dating from 2003.
Tang said the drawing "does not match. [The basement at No. 7 York Road] is basically used for storage." The Buildings Department said that the property was inspected on 22 January 2007, and no unauthorized structures were found. The property was held through a British Virgins Island company in which he once held shares; Tang transferred full ownership to his wife in 2010.
Local residents and bystanders were bemused by the media and political circus that gathered in York Road as inspectors made a site visit on 16 February: media hired building cranes to gain vantage over the property; photographers climbed onto the wall to photograph inside the compoundLeung Kwok-Hung led a protest outside Tang's residence and urged him to withdraw from the election.
On 15 February, on the grounds that he had already admitted to the illegal structure, Tang rejected the media's demands to inspect his illegal basement on grounds of his privacy. "An illegal structure is an illegal structure. It doesn't matter what the facilities inside are." In a press conference on 16 February, Tang's wife took responsibility for the illegal basement facility. Tang also apologised for mishandling the issue and for not properly addressing the furore generated. Tang refused to withdraw from the election, and said he had "realized that there was an illegal underground basement in my residence." He blamed the mishandling on the marital problems he was facing at the time. He has been criticised for having to hide behind his wife. On his election website, Tang blamed his woes on "unprecedented attacks, which are wolf-like and fierce".
Media and public opinion
The leader of the South China Morning Post of 17 February was highly critical. It asserted that Tang had no option but to quit. It said: "One oversight is perhaps not fatal. But attempts to cover up one's mistakes are political suicide. The chief executive hopeful has given the impression that he has not been telling the truth as the fiasco continues to unfold ... Instead of giving a straightforward answer, he appeared to have played with words and repeatedly dodged the key question to play down the controversy. But his statements have been unconvincing and his explanations have only raised more questions."
Experts believe that the secret basement standing larger than the footprint of the house was no afterthought: engineers have commented of the near impossibility of building such a large underground structure after completion of the main house. The filed building plan showed over-engineered foundations: piles were driven five metres deep, enough space to harbour at least one storey underground.
Pundits say that Tang, with his privileged background and his tycoon backers, embodies Hong Kong’s political and economic elite which the general public feels is out of touch with the rest of the population. A poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong showed a sharply declining level of support for Tang to stay in the race over the two days of the breaking scandal: 116 of 183 people polled on 17 February saying Tang should withdraw, sharply up from 149 out of 333 people (44.8%) on 16 February – overall 51.3%. 410 of the 516 people surveyed said the incident reflected poorly on Tang's integrity.
Tang's support level among the public continued to nosedive where 66% believed he should quit the race. Opposition to Tang was 72.2 per cent (23.5 percentage points higher) one week after the initial poll.
Tang's support from pro-establishment political parties showed signs of softening: the Liberal Party indicated that although it would not seek the return of its 62 election committee nominations, its members may not vote for him in the election. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said it would "carefully consider the saga and Tang's personal integrity to determine whether they will nominate and support him in the chief executive election." Despite the scandals, some such as Peter Woo of Wharf Holdings continue to support Tang.
Regina Ip, also one of the hopefuls, called on Tang to withdraw from the race, saying that Tang's "integrity and credibility have been tarnished." In response to the scandal, Jasper Tsang said he was "seriously considering" joining the Chief Executive race.
The government declined to issue a demolition order on the house, as the owners agreed to remedy the problem. Gregory Wong, former president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, said although the work was relatively simple and could under normal circumstances be completed in three days. An estimated of over 730 cubic metres of cement will be needed to fill in the basement; low-density concrete would be used so as not to overload the foundations. However, site constraints meant only five trucks would access the site a day, and it would take up to two weeks and cost about HK$300,000 (US$38,500).
Legal and political implications
Secretary for Development Carrie Lam said that the Buildings Department investigation into Tang's illegal construction would be a drawn-out process. She warned of criminal proceedings against Tang and his wife if there was evidence that drawings submitted to the Buildings Department in 2007 had "knowingly" been misrepresented. Property owners found guilty of knowingly undertaking construction work without government approval may face two years in jail and a fine of up to HK$400,000; owners misrepresenting any drawings submitted to the Buildings Department are liable to a fine of HK$1 million and three years in prison. As the chief executive is not immune from criminal prosecution, representatives of the legal profession on the Election Committee pointed out that such an eventuality could bring the office of Chief Executive into disrepute, and precipitate a governance crisis.
Commentators observed that Henry Tang's self-inflicted damage has embarrassed Beijing and made it lose control of the election process. Liberal Party chairman James Tien said his party would not support Tang if 50% or more of the public continues to oppose his candidacy, as he feared Hong Kong could "face a governance crisis". He warned that if Tang succeeds in becoming chief executive despite his unpopularity, a hundred thousand people may "take their anger onto the streets."
The illegal basement was filled in in March 2013. In July 2013 Lisa Kuo appeared in court, where she pled guilty to one charge of "building an illegal basement", and not guilty to a second charge of "knowingly commencing building works without obtaining approval". The second charge was subsequently dropped. Tang was not charged with any offence. In November, the court fined Kuo a total of HK$110,000, calculated based on a basic penalty of HK$50,000 and HK$500 for each day of the basement's construction. Tang complained about the magnitude of the fine, saying that the heaviest such penalty in the past decade was HK$15,000.
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- 最新：面積大過間屋 唐宅僭建地下行宮 [Latest: Floor area greater than house itself; Tang residence has illegally constructed basement]. Sharp Daily. 15 February 2012 Archived from the original on 20 February 2012.
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- Wong, Olga (23 February 2012). "Filling in basement will take 80 cement trucks". South China Morning Post
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- Chugani, Michael (22 February 2012). 'Public Eye' – "Let's hear it for Henry, he's made the chief executive race racier". South China Morning Post
- Lee, Colleen; Cheung, Gary (25 February 2012). "Liberals give Tang an ultimatum". South China Morning Post
- Chan, Kahon (28 November 2013). "Henry Tang’s wife fined HK$110,000 for illegal basement". Archived from the original on 20 May 2014.
- Lee, Simon; Wong, Alan (12 July 2013). "Henry Tang’s Wife Admits Guilt Over Illegal Basement". Archived from the original on 20 May 2014.