HK leader-in-waiting hit by basement controversy

AP News
Posted: Feb 17, 2012 5:41 AM
HK leader-in-waiting hit by basement controversy

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 said he was sorry, but resisted growing pressure on Friday to drop out of the race after reporters unearthed sketches that revealed the unauthorized 2,400-square-foot (200-square-meter) 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 sleek and modern 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 that has windows on its floor looking into the basement extension.

Tang blamed the oversight on his wife, Lisa Kuo, who tried to hold back tears 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."

People who build without planning permission face a fine of up to 400,000 Hong Kong dollars ($51,500) or up to two years in prison. Building officers have inspected the extension but haven't said yet if any charges will be filed.

It's the latest gaffe for Tang, a former senior government official and scion of a wealthy family from Shanghai who is a noted wine connoisseur. Tang was widely tipped early on as Beijing's preferred choice to take over from Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who steps down in July.

The next chief executive will be picked in March by a 1,200-member committee packed with Beijing loyalists.

"Tang's scandal has put Beijing in a very difficult situation," China analyst Johnny Lau told the South China Morning Post newspaper.

Polls have shown consistently that Tang's main rival, Leung Chun-ying, is much more popular with the public. He's also considered friendly to Beijing.