Before branding Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah as the least popular and most arrogant Hong Kong public official since former chief executive Leung Chun-ying stepped aside 18 months ago, let’s consider where all her huffy indignation and eye-rolling disdain may come from.

After all, as current CE Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor reminded us when Cheng took over the Department of Justice (DOJ) last January, she is eminently qualified for the position, having established a long and distinguished career in both legal and academic circles.

She has been called to the bar in Hong Kong, England, Wales, Australia and Singapore and is considered an international expert on construction law and arbitration.

Indeed, it is fair to say that no one has come to her position with a sharper legal mind and a more sparkling c.v. On paper at least, it appeared that Hong Kong, mired in minister mediocrity since the 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, finally had a star.

Teresa Cheng. File

And that perhaps is the crux of the problem of Cheng’s rocky one-year tenure in office. From the start, when this master of construction law declared herself too busy with weightier matters to notice all the illegal structures that had been erected on her various properties around the city, the justice chief has served Hong Kong with a palpable air of noblesse oblige.

It’s as if she were grudgingly doing us all a big favour by taking on a job that requires distasteful engagement with opposition politicians looking to score points at her expense, and a public uneducated in legal affairs.

Cheng also shows little regard for local media, which she treated with undisguised contempt at a disastrous Boxing Day news conference that quickly became a showcase for the imperious scorn with which she treats those who deign to question her judgement or motives.

The subject of that ill-fated news conference — her department’s decision not to prosecute Leung on corruption charges arising from his failure to declare a HK$50 million payment he received from Australian engineering firm UGL in sums given to him both prior to and during his time in office — could not have been more politically fraught.

Yet Cheng refused to offer any further explanation beyond the “insufficient evidence” finding offered in the DOJ’s wholly inadequate one-page brief on the case.

Leung Chun-ying. File photo: European Business Summit, via Flickr.

The distinguished legal eagle even appeared to contradict the department’s own policy on hiring independent legal experts when she said external counsel would be sought only in cases involving members of the DOJ.

Just this past February, in a document submitted to the Legislative Council (Legco), the department stated that it would seek outside legal advice whenever there is a perception of conflict of interest or bias, which it has done in other high-profile cases involving former CE Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan, both of whom were jailed for misconduct in public office, and which was certainly warranted in Leung’s case as well.

It’s not just the usual pan-democratic opposition that is heaping criticism on Cheng this time. The Independent Commission Against Corruption, which spent more than four years investigating the UGL payments to Leung, has called for her to offer a fuller explanation of the DOJ’s decision not to prosecute.

Well-known pro-establishment figures such as New People’s Party leader and Executive Council member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and the council’s convenor, Bernard Charnwut Chan, have joined the chorus of disapproval.

Calls for Cheng’s resignation featured prominently in the annual New Year’s Day protest rally, and when the beleaguered minister appears before a Legco panel meeting scheduled for January 28, she can expect a hostile reception and a slew of pointed questions about the DOJ’s handling of the Leung-UGL saga.

This time she would be wise to leave her pique and hauteur at home and fully address the questions she is asked.

Carrie Lam. File Photo: GovHK.

Further stonewalling and supercilious displays of temper and exasperation will only heighten the public perception of arrogance and insensitivity that has attached itself not just to Cheng but also to the Lam administration in general.

Lam herself has been known to show her haughty side, as when she told reporters that answering questions in English was “a waste of time.” She continues her staunch defence of her indefensible justice chief.

It’s long past time for Hong Kong’s leaders to stop treating the people of this city like colonial subjects.

The last British administration exited Hong Kong on the Royal Yacht Britannia 21 years ago. That departure should have put an end to pompous patronisation and demeaning condescension. Here we are in the first week of 2019, however, and that is manifestly not the case.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.