Chief Secretary Carrie Lam has asked critics to not politicise the controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum project, while denying that she intended to push through the project for political gain.

Calling the project a “rare opportunity,” Lam addressed reporters on Tuesday in a defiant tone: “If you think we are not doing a good enough job – even though we have already explained why we needed to keep the project confidential – we accept the criticism.”

“But people should not politicise the cultural project and even belittle the Palace Museum culture and the value of its artifacts. People should not take away the opportunity of Hong Kong residents to see the exhibits close up.”

carrie lam palace museum
Carrie Lam (C) and members of the core group in preparation for the development of the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Photo: WKCDA.

Procedural impropriety

Lam, who chairs the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, admitted that it was her “judgment and decision” to engage architect Rocco Yim in May last year to design the museum, and that she was the first government official to approach the architect.

Investigative newswire FactWire revealed last week that Yim was appointed without tender months before government officials formally presented the proposal to the authority’s board members. The authority subsequently confirmed the report.

palace museum protest
A protest on Tuesday against the Hong Kong Palace Museum project. Photo: P H Yang.

But Lam denied having committed procedural impropriety on the basis that the “procurement policies of many governmental departments and organisations” allow room for flexibility so that direct appointment is permitted under special circumstances.

She said the project is “very special” and that her team – which she said was receptive of her view – wanted the museum to be designed by a local architect who is knowledgeable about the West Kowloon Cultural District and has experience in building large museums.

Lam added she had made it “very clear” that the appointment of Yim as lead consultant was approved at a special board meeting last November and formally made by the authority’s CEO Duncan Pescod.

Duncan Pescod Rocco Yim
WKCDA’s CEO Duncan Pescod (L) and architect Rocco Yim (R). Photo: WKCDA.

Lam also denied setting a bad precedent by approaching Yim without first seeking the board’s approval, as she was authorised to conduct preliminary work before submitting the proposal to the board. She added that Yim’s HK$4.5 million payment for the feasibility study was within the financial limits authorised to her.

“Some powers are delegated to the chair or bureau head,” she said. “If every matter had to be referred to the board, it would be impossible to carry out any work.”

“We conceive policy initiatives from time to time… and most of these exercises are done in a confidential manner until we are ready to disclose and announce, and then we listen to public opinion. That is the very usual way of doing government policy work,” she said.

‘No self-interest’

Lam dismissed arguments that she intended to use the project to score political points. She said some people had already launched a “personal attack” against her, the day after she made a u-turn and said she would reconsider running for chief executive.

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“This important project has offered more bullets for people who want to attack me,” Lam said.

Calling herself a “proactive official,” Lam said: “I know that our society today is full of this type of mistrust. But for this project, we really are not motivated by self-interest. We really just hope to build a Hong Kong Palace Museum, for Hong Kong, that we can all be proud of.”

She added that anyone with common sense would not buy the argument that she was driven by self-interest, as the use of land was appropriate, the project was funded by donations from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and the Chinese government was willing to cooperate by loosening its export policy of cultural artifacts.

“I really can’t see where the so-called self-interest lies,” she said.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam introducing the Hong Kong Palace Museum project. File Photo: GovHK.

Public consultation

A six-week consultation period was launched on Tuesday. Lam said: “The public consultation we are about to launch will have a very meaningful purpose of providing views [and] comments on how we should craft this collaborative agreement in terms of the actual operation of the Hong Kong Palace Museum.”

A public meeting with the authority’s consultation panel is scheduled for Thursday.

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Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.