Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng has told lawmakers that she was personally involved in advising election officers before they banned Agnes Chow from running in the March legislative by-election.

At a Legislative Council panel on Monday – which Cheng agreed to attend after previously refusing – she was repeatedly asked by Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui if she was involved in offering legal advice to the government.

A rally on Sunday criticised Teresa Cheng. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“The legal advice is the advice given by the Department of Justice,” Cheng repeatedly said, until she admitted to personal involvement after being challenged for a fifth time.

“The legal advice given is confidential,” she added.

Chow was barred from entering the election race after an election officer said her party contravened the Basic Law – a move which top lawyers described as “unreasonable, unlawful and unconstitutional.”

Democratic Party Roy Kwong asked Cheng: “You ask us to give you a chance, but who will give a chance to Agnes Chow?… You blame the election officer, but will you bear your own responsibility as justice secretary?” An election officer stated that independence was listed as an option in a public referendum proposed by her party, Demosisto.

Cheng repeated her answer that it was the election officer’s decision: “It was not my decision.”

When repeatedly asked to resign, Cheng reiterated that she only joined the government because she had a passion to do the job.

Unconstitutional group

Lawmaker Claudia Mo asked Cheng if Demosisto would be banned as a group since its advocacy of self-determination was ruled unconstitutional by the government, but Cheng did not directly answer: “Whether the organisation is unconstitutional is not a matter for the election officers to consider.”

Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Cheng did not directly answer as to whether candidates would be barred in the future if they expressed support for ending China’s one-party rule. Though she later told reporters that the decision to ban Chow was “not political.”

Illegal structures scandal

Cheng was also challenged over an illegal structures scandal which has haunted her since she took office. She told lawmakers that she did not know the previous property owner of her Tuen Mun house, where modifications are underway to remove illegal structures.

“I will learn my lesson and respond to lawmakers more actively and faster,” she said, as she apologised several times.

Teresa Cheng. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

But lawmaker Tanya Chan questioned why Cheng signed a mortgage document which stated there was no illegal basement: “Did you lie?”

Cheng said that, as the owner of the property, she will bear the legal responsibility: “I did not notice how the document was written at the time.”

Legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok asked five times whether Cheng’s government pre-appointment integrity check involved questions about illegal structures, but she refused to answer, citing confidentiality rules.

Lawmaker Ray Chan protesting against Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng for barring pro-democracy candidate Agnes Chow from running in legislative by-election. Photo: HKFP.

Since her appointment, the justice chief has attracted heavy criticism over the controversy. Cheng, who has degrees in engineering and law, sat on a Buildings Ordinance tribunal and co-wrote a book on construction law – said she failed to notice the structures because she was “very busy” when the house was purchased.

She defended her continuous involvement in six arbitration cases from her private practise, saying that it would be unfair to all parties if the cases were dropped.

When asked about the upcoming national anthem law, Cheng said the government hoped the law would be tabled at the Legislative Council within the current legislative term which ends in July.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.