HK leader candidate blames wife for 'underground palace'

HONG KONG, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - Hong Kong chief executive hopeful Henry Tang's campaign was in disarray Friday after he blamed his wife for what has been dubbed an illegal "underground palace" in one of the couple's homes.

Tang came under pressure to quit the race after local media revealed the illegal basement featuring a wine cellar, a Japanese-style bath, entertainment suite and a workout room at the upmarket residential property.

The 59-year-old heir of a textile fortune said the renovation which had not received approval was his wife's idea, after media descended on the house and hired cranes to get a bird's-eye view of a glass-bottomed swimming pool above the basement.

"I apologise to all Hong Kong people," an emotional Tang told a hastily convened press conference late Thursday.

"It was my wife's idea and I knew they were illegal. Since we were experiencing a low ebb in our marriage...I did not handle the matter swiftly. I take full responsibility for the incident."

The well-known wine lover however refused to quit the race, saying he should be judged by his business-friendly manifesto. Legal experts said he could face jail over the scandal, making him ineligible for office.

His comments -- taking responsibility while blaming his wife -- left many wondering if the man believed to be Beijing's favourite for the chief executive job has what it takes to lead the southern banking and trade centre.

A 1,200-member Electoral Committee packed with pro-Beijing elites will choose the next chief executive on March 25, replacing incumbent Donald Tsang whose mandate is ending.

"He has almost lost all his credibility in the whole thing, he lied every day," Chinese University of Hong Kong political scientist Ma Ngok told AFP, referring to Tang's earlier description of the area as a "storage" space.

"It appears that he's still trying to canvass Beijing's support, but based on his credibility it will be very difficult for him to lead Hong Kong for the next five years even if he is elected."

Tang has not yet formally nominated himself for the chief executive job. The deadline is February 29.

"I think Beijing is in a difficult situation since there are several days left before the close of the nomination period and it will be too short for them to find a replacement for Tang," Ma said.

Angry Hong Kongers hit out at Tang on government-run talk radio. One caller said his credibility was "bankrupt" and several politicians urged him to quit the race.

"Based on his conduct, his personality and his capability, he is not a suitable candidate for the next chief executive," said Regina Ip, former security minister and chairwoman of the pro-Beijing New People's Party.

Another chief executive hopeful, Albert Ho, from the pro-democracy camp, said: "He tried to conceal the facts. He has a very serious credibility problem."

The widely read main Chinese language newspaper Apple Daily said Tang's credibility had been "buried" in the "underground palace".

The controversy is the biggest setback so far for Tang's campaign, already beset by his frequent verbal gaffes to reporters and opinion polls putting him well behind his main rival, Leung Chun-ying.

Tang has the support of the city's powerful business tycoons but his campaign got off to a shaky start late last year when he publicly admitted to cheating on his wife of 27 years, Lisa Kuo Yu-chin.

A teary Kuo stood beside her husband then and again on Thursday as she admitted to arranging the excavations without Tang's knowledge.

"I just wanted to plan a comfy place for my family," she said in response to a barrage of questions from journalists.

"I greatly regret that I did it without considering the consequences. I'm very, very sorry."

Authorities confirmed the illegal basement was around 2,250 square feet (209 square metres) in area. Many of Hong Kong's seven million people live in spaces a quarter of that size.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and authorities regularly prosecute residents for making illegal additions to their homes.