19 April 2019
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (left) sent an open letter to the HKEJ denouncing a column by famed commentator Joseph Lian (inset). Photos: Internet
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (left) sent an open letter to the HKEJ denouncing a column by famed commentator Joseph Lian (inset). Photos: Internet

Why I must apologize for my column on Leung Chai-yan

My previous commentary, dated March 19, on Leung Chai-yan went viral after her father, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, sent an open letter to the Hong Kong Economic Journal denouncing the column.

That was followed by intense and polarized discussion and debate.

I did not expect these developments.

I appeal to all parties to remain calm to avoid any nuisance to the innocent person involved.

Mr. Leung said in his letter that “Chai-yan’s condition is serious”.

I then consulted my friends, some of whom are medical experts, and they told me “she’d better be taken care of by doctors, and any noise from outside, either in support of her or vice versa, may lead to unpredictable consequences”.

Now I admit that there were indeed some inappropriate points in my last commentary, and I would like to express my deepest apology to the person involved.

And I hope Mr. Leung himself can show his goodwill, so as to bring the incident to an end.

With the media’s intensive coverage of last week’s drama inside Hong Kong’s first family, initially everyone focused on Chai-yan.

I was trying to guide public attention to more serious social issues to avoid any unintentional harm, rather than engaging in “political attacks”.

Yet my article failed to convey clearly my intent, and I didn’t foresee the strong reactions from different parties.

I would like to apologize to my readers for the disturbance and confusion caused.

As always, my opinions, including this statement, do not represent those of the HKEJ.

The West has a long history of civil discourse, which is usually in the form of two-way communication, like debates and polemics (either spoken or written), as well as commentaries and lectures.

In its 300 years of history, civil discourse has played a pivotal role in promoting independent thinking.

Any commentator must not become self-righteous about his logic, facts, reasoning or attitude; otherwise there will be no exchange of views, and the entire process may become ideological assertion or even “political attacks”.

There should be room for mistakes and one must make apologies when necessary.

Sometimes, the apology is made to a third party rather than your adversary or the person you criticize.

The theory and standards of apologies are worth discussing.

First, the extent of an apology should be decided by the “eggshell skull rule”, a well-established legal doctrine used in some tort law systems.

Basically, the logic is that the more serious the consequences arising from a tortious act, the bigger the liability of the person who commits the tort against another.

A plain example is knocking over a pedestrian while you drive.

As it’s impossible to know in advance the physical condition of the victim, this rule ensures that your overall compensation equals the victim’s loss.

It alerts all drivers to the importance of safe and courteous driving.

If the law only stipulates an average amount of compensation, then some drivers may hit someone on purpose, since the cost of breaking the law is considered low.

It is also possible that someone will purposely get knocked over in order to receive compensation if it is considered high.

Famed American jurist and legal theorist Richard Posner has expounded on this point in his book Economic Analysis of Law.

When commenting on public affairs, if one party involved has clearly complained that he or she is a victim of emotional problems, the extent of apology from the other side should fully reflect the disturbance caused, nothing more, nothing less, in a way that is productive to rational civil discourse.

A good model to follow is Ko Wen-je.

The newly elected mayor of Taipei is known for his outspokenness and a vigorous style of work and leadership.

His personality makes him more likely to make inappropriate remarks.

But as soon as he finds out he is wrong, he does not hesitate to admit his impoliteness or lack of consideration with a swift apology.

The extent of an apology is also determined by the extent of direct as well as consequential damage.

In the case of my commentary on Leung Chai-yan, the direct damage is trivial, as the HKEJ has a relatively small readership, and on the newspaper’s website, my articles get no more than 2,500 hits on average.

Also, my articles are rather long (usually 4,000 Chinese characters), so youngsters will not bother to find and read them.

But shortly after Mr. Leung sent his letter to the newspaper, the commentary was widely shared on numerous other platforms, including Facebook and HKGolden (a popular local forum).

Eventually, it reached far more readers than usual, and thus its consequential damage has been magnified.

Although the facts, logic, reasoning and analogy in this commentary are all correct, I have to make a more formal apology as the writer and take greater responsibility, as it has been more widely read.

Given my experience, I should have foreseen the reaction to the commentary, which I failed to do.

I need to bear all the blame, as I was not cautious enough, and as a result, the innocent person has been subjected to severe consequential damage from distorted information and unfair judgments.

Now I have a suggestion for Mr. Leung.

In the event of any future dispute (I think a similar incident won’t happen again), rather than issuing an open letter, perhaps he can send his fair comments or views directly to me or request the HKEJ’s editors to relay his message.

The benefits are obvious: he can stop the disagreement from escalating into a new saga and avoid the adverse impact on the person involved.

Also, there won’t be the usual accusation of undermining freedom of speech.

I think Mr. Leung also knows that since November, several of his subordinates have sent me emails to lodge complaints or seek dialogue regarding articles by me targeted at him or his administration.

I have either responded to or ignored these emails, but as they are all private correspondence, I will never make them public or use them as evidence of Leung’s intervention.

Being a veteran commentator, I don’t think of them as a form of pressure from the authorities.

I sincerely hope the incident will soon come to an end and the person involved can have a quiet environment for recovery.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 23.

Translations by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected] 


A sad Leung Chai-yan is seen on March 16 on the balcony of Government House (left). She later said on her Instagram page (right) that she "has officially left home". Photos: Internet

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe