Former Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying threatened me with legal action too, says scholar
Eric Cheung says he is speaking out to show he cannot be silenced by threats after fellow academic and news company targeted, and urges ex-chief executive to stay out of local affairs
A Hong Kong law scholar has said academics will not be silenced by threats of court action after revealing he also received legal letters from the city’s former leader, Leung Chun-ying.
Eric Cheung Tat-ming’s revelation came days after Leung said he was suing another university professor and a non-profit online media outlet for libel.
Cheung, who received the threat over comments about the former chief executive’s undeclared payout from a foreign firm, reminded Leung he was no longer in local office and asked him to stay out of city affairs.
Leung announced in a Facebook post on Friday his libel suit against Polytechnic University assistant professor Chung Kim-wah and Best Pencil (Hong Kong), which operates online media portal Stand News. Chung had posted online a rebuttal of Leung’s attack on the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club for hosting a speech by an independence activist. The post later appeared on Stand News’ website.
In a strongly worded comment on the Facebook post on Sunday evening, Cheung, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said Leung was attacking the city’s freedom of speech.
“I’m now choosing to publicly reveal the incident and speak out against you because I know that as a legal scholar, when I face an attack on freedom of speech in Hong Kong, I am duty-bound,” he said.
Cheung said he did not want to remain silent any longer as he was worried the former leader would think issuing legal letters could silence scholars.
At the end of his post, Cheung urged Leung to stay out of Hong Kong’s business to avoid undermining the current administration and stop, as he saw it, infringing on the city’s free speech.
“You should understand you are no longer the chief executive of Hong Kong but a state leader in your capacity as vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference,” he wrote.
“I hope you will no longer [get involved in] matters within the high-level autonomy of Hong Kong, so the government won’t be bewildered and its administration won’t be undermined.”
Cheung said he received two legal letters in May after commenting on Leung’s payout in an interview with Wolf-Hunting, a crowdfunding campaign to support further investigation into Leung’s dealings. He did not disclose the content of the letters.
In 2016, the Legislative Council set up a committee to investigate Leung’s receipt of HK$50 million (US$6.4 million) from Australian engineering firm UGL. That payment came after UGL’s 2011 purchase of DTZ, an insolvent property company of which Leung was a director before becoming chief executive in 2012. Leung took the cash after his election, but did not declare it to his cabinet.
He insisted there was no conflict of interest and it was a normal resignation arrangement, but pan-democrats alleged impropriety.
Cheung acknowledged he did not have the chance to read the relevant litigation documents. But, having read the legal letters sent to Chung and Stand News, he said Leung seemed to be unaware of the legal defence of fair comment.
He then went on an explanation of fair comment running to more than 1,000 words. In a verdict at the Court of Final Appeal in the case of Paul Tse Wai-chun versus Albert Cheng and Lam Yuk-wah in 2000 – which Cheung cited in his post – the judges ruled fair comment must be an expression of opinion based on clearly stated facts that are true or protected by privilege made by an honest person for the public interest.
The lecturer said Leung had not understood Hong Kong’s laws were different from those of mainland China, with the former not being dictated by the government or leaders.
“Hong Kong’s law guarantees freedom of speech and thought; the public has the absolute right not to accept the one-sided words of the government or its leaders,” he said.
“Continuing to present factually based comments and doubts does not constitute defamation.”
He said Leung was welcome to respond and provide relevant information if he thought people’s comments on him unfair or incorrect.
Leung, in a Facebook post published on Monday late night, refuted Cheung, saying that comments based on make-believe cannot be fair.
Leung reiterated that Chung’s commentary published in Stand News was groundless and therefore defamatory. However Leung did not mention the letters he sent to Cheung, nor did he respond to Cheung’s comments that prompted the letters.
“Those who make up, distort or ignore facts are not [making] comments, but libel,” Leung said in his post.
Leung’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In his letter to Chung and Stand News, Leung demanded the defendants meet a list of requirements within a week including: retracting the article; paying damages and reimbursement for the legal costs incurred; and publishing an apology with the wording approved by him.
On Monday afternoon, the Justice Defence Fund, established in 2016 to provide financial aid to citizens to defend their rights in criminal and civil proceedings, said it would answer a call from Chung for help and support his legal fight against Leung.
Neither the fund nor Chung specified the amount of financial support.
“The fund has around HK$6.36 million in its current account and expects to make it HK$10 million through further fundraising,” it said in a statement.
Chung, who had been a trustee of the fund, immediately resigned and was replaced by Cyd Ho Sau-lan, vice-chairwoman of the Labour Party. He said he would still consider initiating a crowdfunding campaign because legal procedures might be prolonged.
Additional reporting by Su Xinqi