New Hong Kong leader urged to quit over illegal basement scandal

HONG KONG Mon Dec 10, 2012 12:13pm GMT

HONG KONG Dec 10 (Reuters) - Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying said on Monday he had been negligent and apologised for his handling of a scandal over an illegally built basement that stoked angry calls for his resignation.

Leung, who took office in July, was criticised by pro-democracy and pro-establishment lawmakers in the legislature for failing to give a clear account of the unauthorised building works that has called his integrity into question.

In space-starved Hong Kong, such embellishments to homes are common to maximise living space, but similar minor violations have ensnared several prominent officials over the past year.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, remains a major financial centre, though its moves towards full democracy make it a Petri dish of reform for China's Communist leaders, who have exerted behind-the-scenes control over local politics.

Leung's housing works did not come to light until after he'd won the support of a 1,200-member elite committee of largely pro-Beijing loyalists in a March election.

"It was less than cautious, liable to cause misunderstanding and for this I'm prepared to accept public criticism," said Leung, who said there had been "some negligence".

"Looking back, while I never had any intention of concealing anything, I must admit there was oversight on my part and my explanation was not sufficiently clear. I must once again solemnly offer my apologies."

The Beijing-backed Leung had initially been considered an underdog in the election against rival Henry Tang. But a series of scandals including one over illegal structures discovered in Tang's home proved a tipping point.

Some lawmakers accused Leung of discrediting Tang over a "palatial" basement and wine cellar beneath a family-owned villa while being guilty of similar wrongdoing himself.

"You got rid of the evidence and you started attacking your rival. He was speechless ... and then you got the chief executive's job," said lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung. "How do you have the integrity to continue ruling Hong Kong?"

Leung sidestepped questions to clarify whether he knew about the illegal structures during the election campaign, drawing the ire of lawmakers, two of whom were ejected from the legislature after shouting for him to resign.

Leung, who faces a no-confidence motion in the legislature on Wednesday, had earlier blamed a "memory lapse" for much of the confusion. (Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)