Just when you thought that the former chief executive Leung Chun-yin had been safely deployed on glass-clinking duties with Chinese officials, he has returned to remind Hongkongers how truly nasty he is.
He seemed to be on a pretty safe wicket in joining the hue and cry over the Hong Kong National Party. Following the lead from up North Leung seized the opportunity to brandish his credentials as a super patriot by attacking the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for its temerity in inviting the HKNP’s leader Andy Chan to give a speech.
But, not for the first time, CY’s enthusiasm got the better of him and he declared that it was outrageous that the FCC, which was paying a peppercorn rent for its government-owned premises, should be allowed to retain its tenancy.
When he was told that far from paying a peppercorn rent, the FCC was paying a commercial rent, Leung, who does not like facts to get in the way of the story, made the absurd demand that the club should voluntarily relinquish its tenancy and subject itself to a competitive tender for the premises.
He has form here as displayed during the Umbrella protests when he flatly declared that he was in possession of “irrefutable evidence” of how the protests had been manipulated by outside forces. Despite promises to produce this evidence, three years on he has not managed to present a scintilla of proof.
What he does not know because, of course, he has never bothered to ask is that not only is the FCC paying a commercial rent, it is also very serious about its responsibilities as tenant of a historic building. The club has invested heavily in the building’s renovation and is currently spending a great of deal of money on a consultancy study designed to find the best ways of preserving and enhancing the premises.
This is a serious commitment made by a club that values these premises and is committed to using them as a focal point for journalists where ideas can be freely exchanged and challenged – which is precisely what journalists are supposed to do.
Inviting someone like Chan, who is unquestionably in the news, to explain himself and be subjected to the kind of questioning which occurs in a truly open forum, was logical.
However, freedom of expression is no longer a given in Hong Kong; there is much talk about red lines being crossed. In this instance it is quite clear why the usual rabble of government cheerleaders dislike everything that Chan stands for but, at least as matters stand, he is not leading a banned political party and should be protected by Article 27 of the Basic Law which flatly states that “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication, freedom of association, and of demonstration…”
Freedom of speech, if it has any meaning at all, must include the right to criticize even fundamental aspects of the constitution. It does not, of course, include such things as incitement to violence or to any other kind of criminal act. But in the Orwellian world that people like Leung would like to see created in Hong Kong, “thought crime” needs to be brought into play so that critics can be found guilty of even thinking things that displease the established order.
Leung is a classic bully who simply charges in to attack what he believes to be a weak target but like all bullies he wilts when met with stoic resistance. The FCC has doggedly insisted that it gives a platform to all manner of opinions and is not in the business of advocacy but is in the business of enquiry.
Should the club be coerced into rescinding Chan’s invitation to speak, it is a near certainty that further pressure will be exercised to prevent those who are the government’s fiercest critics from having a platform. The tycoon Ronnie Chan, one of Leung’s few friends, uses his position as head of the Asia Society in Hong Kong to ensure that no democrat is ever allowed to appear on one of its platforms, even though in the United States, where the organization is based, democrats have been allowed to speak. No doubt Comrade Ronnie has created a template for how things should be at the FCC.
Leung now weakly claims that he was not trying to threaten the FCC, which raises the question as to why he combined his objections to the Chan speech with questioning over the club’s continued use of its premises.
But, as hopefully more rational people in the government understand, there is a price to be paid for ejecting the FCC from its premises. How can Hong Kong pretend to an open and relevant international center where the rule of law is strong and freedom prevails when exercise of this freedom is curtailed? If the SAR is heading off this totalitarian direction, the international businesses located here will quickly up sticks because their main reason for being in Hong Kong is that Hong Kong offers the freedoms which do not exist on the mainland.
There is, however, an elegant solution here, which is for the FCC to invite Leung to explain his position but he is unlikely to accept the invitation because like most other members of the Hong Kong establishment, he fears an open forum where his views would be open to challenge.
Stephen Vines is a former FCC president who is happy to declare his direct interest in this matter.
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