Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is upset as he feels people are saying unkind things about him, things which may not even be correct.
Most politicians understand that the burden of criticism is something that comes with the job. But, not, apparently, Mr Leung who has just launched his third legal action against critics (the other two actions involve Next Media’s Apple Daily newspaper).
All three actions concern the payment made to the CE by UGL amounting to HK$50 million which he kept under wraps, although the payments were made during his time in office.
In the latest case the CE is threatening to sue Legco member Kenneth Leung Kai-cheong for defamation following the legislator’s comments about the transaction and for the suggestion that taxation authorities might also be taking an interest in the matter.
CY has taken particular exception to the suggestion that mainland Chinese authorities could face severe embarrassment if they give him, as rumored, a senior state position.
The CE says he is acting in his personal capacity and seeking exemplary and or aggravated damages from Kenneth Leung. In so doing he has inadvertently revealed that he does not even understand what it means to be head of the government. There really is no such thing as personal for someone in the Chief Executive’s position, particularly in matters that relate to his job.
Those who volunteer for high office understand that the office comes with heavy responsibilities alongside the privileges and powers it entails. It is also commonly understood that anyone occupying the top political job, not just in Hong Kong but elsewhere, appreciates that they will be subject to a high degree of scrutiny and a barrage of criticism. Only dictatorships enjoy the privilege of power without accountability,
Of course, criticism can be unpleasant and accountability highly arduous but that’s the deal; those who can’t take the strain are best advised to keep away from the game, much in the same way that anyone who dislikes getting kicked should really keep away from playing rugby.
But CY wants it both ways. He craved the power and prestige of the job but thought that he could somehow do it without accepting the downsides it entails.
Mounting action for defamation against critics is a tactic widely used in Singapore to bankrupt and intimidate the embattled members of the opposition. Fortunately for the Singapore government it can rely on a tame judiciary that has never failed to back its many defamation suits.
Hong Kong’s judiciary is far from being so compliant and cannot therefore be automatically relied upon to endorse whatever high officials or the government itself wants. This is a major source of strength for the SAR but, as we have seen in recent weeks, the independence of the judiciary is being increasingly questioned by those who believe it needs to be more compliant with government wishes.
As matters stand not only can CY be unsure of the outcome of his actions, he also cannot control what may arise in the course of litigation, some of which may be even more damaging than the original alleged defamation.
It is nevertheless far from certain that any of CY’s defamation actions will ever actually come to trial because it is often the case that those who launch defamation claims do so both to intimidate and to try and create the impression that they have been unfairly wronged even if they have no real intention of pursuing the matter through the courts. Strongly worded lawyers’ letters are relatively cheap and because they involve no actual proceedings are often used as an end in themselves.
As a journalist I have been in receipt of a number of very strongly worded lawyers’ letters from some pretty dubious characters who shook off other reporters following up the stories by grandly announcing that the accusations were groundless and the subject of legal action. This kind of worked because it deterred closer scrutiny and gave the impression that the subject of investigation was somehow an aggrieved party. However none of these matters ever came to court because the plaintiffs were well aware of the weakness of their cases.
Whether CY will actually end up in court, either with Kenneth Leung or the Next Media group, remains to be seen but what is clear is that the chief executive prefers to use a bludgeon to limit criticism rather than engage in debate and prove his point by working hard to increase his credibility in other ways.
In so doing he undermines the office he occupies and reflects a worrying state of mind.
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