Is Billy Fung, the president of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union, a heroic whistle-blower or a disgrace and possible criminal?
The answer very much depends on your political views.
Mr. Fung took a conscious decision, in the spirit of a civil disobedience campaign, to break the rules of confidentiality surrounding the proceedings of the university’s governing council.
He did so at a time of high controversy over allegations of political interference and challenges to academic freedom arising from the decision to block the appointment of the liberal scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun as one of the university’s pro vice chancellors.
Following the meeting that took this decision, Mr. Fung broke the council’s confidentiality rules by telling the public what was said by Professor Chan’s opponents.
Particular attention was paid to the comments of Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, who is widely rumoured to be Chief Executive Leung Chun-yin’s choice to become the council’s next chairman.
Mr. Li, unaware that a recording had been made of his remarks, was quick to accuse Mr. Fung of lying about their contents.
Once they were broadcast and Mr. Fung was found to have accurately reported what he said, Mr. Li claimed that his accusation of lying was meant to be an accusation of breach of confidentiality.
When later pressed to admit or deny that he had made the remarks, Mr. Li gave the less than convincing response that he had not heard the recording and therefore could not comment (as it happens, a transcript is available on this website, should Mr. Li need to check).
The upshot of all this is that Mr. Li has been revealed as a liar and the highly questionable reasons he advanced for blocking the appointment are there for all to see.
On the other hand, it is also perfectly clear that Mr. Fung acted against the rules of the council of which he was a member by virtue of his position as a student’s representative.
His access to these meetings has now been curbed, and the university has initiated a police investigation, although no one has identified any criminal activity in this matter.
The usual suspects have been busy trying to ensure that discussion of this affair is confined to the issue of a breach of confidentiality.
However, there is also the question of whistle-blowing, an act of defiance with a very long history.
Its purpose is to alert the public to matters that arguably need to be in the public domain, even though the act of putting them there involves serious breaches of confidentiality.
In recent history, we have seen the wholesale exposure of the global surveillance program by the United States that affected even government leaders who are close US allies and were shocked to discover that they were the subjects of American spying.
In 2009, nine Eli Lilly sales representatives exposed the drugmaker’s unlawful use of various drugs, particularly for the treatment of dementia, which eventually forced the firm to make a record US$78 million settlement with its accusers.
Silence in these cases and numerous others would have meant the continuation of dangerous and highly damaging activities.
It forced those in possession of confidential information to make a high-risk judgment call in the spirit of civil disobedience.
It should not be overlooked that this spirit was the foundation of the Occupy movement, and Mr. Fung’s actions are very much a continuation of this movement’s activities.
Advocates of civil disobedience always suffer a hostile reception for using illicit means to challenge what they regard as unjust laws or, indeed, unjust policies, which they believe need to be challenged outside the normal realms of the political game.
Importantly, those making these challenges have to accept the need for self-sacrifice, which is why founders of the Occupy movement have said they are willing to be jailed for their activities.
It is hard to think of any major civil disobedience movement that did not impose a heavy toll on its participants.
However, the judgment of history on their actions has tended to be far more generous than the initial response.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is embodied in the person of Martin Luther King, who was murdered for leading the American civil rights movement and frequently jailed for acts of civil disobedience.
Today not only is Dr. King regarded as a national hero but a public holiday has been named in his honor.
The colors of civil disobedience are painted less vividly here in Hong Kong, and its leading personalities are somewhat removed from the charisma of Dr. King, yet the spirit of this movement most certainly has echoes here.
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