The big question that has been lost during the long-running Leung Chun-ying/ UGL saga is why the former Chief Executive has been so keen to sue everyone … except the Australian newspaper group that made the original accusation of wrongdoing surrounding his receipt of a HK$50 million payment from UGL.

In 2014 The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, both part of the Fairfax group, published an investigative report alleging that Leung secretly received this payment from Australian-based UGL after his accession to the post of Chief Executive in 2012.

Leung Chun-ying.

UGL responded by insisting that the payment formed part of an agreement following UGL’s acquisition of the defunct DTZ property services group, where Leung served as an Asia-Pacific director. The Australian company maintains that Leung was given the money to ensure that he neither established a company to compete with UGL nor poached any of the company’s staff.

The original report did not suggest that Leung had broken the law but questions were raised as to the transparency of such a large payment to Hong Kong’s most senior government official. Bearing in mind that the agreement with Leung was made while he was a Chief Executive candidate and actual payment was handed over after he was installed in office, UGL’s explanation of the deal failed to achieve universal credence.

Leung has not denied receiving the cash but, through spokespeople, has insisted that no law was breached and that he had no responsibility to disclose this transaction.

Both UGL’s and Leung’s explanations have raised fresh questions in addition to those that surfaced in the original report. However no libel action was taken against the Fairfax newspapers, although prior to publication Leung’s lawyers threatened to sue in an attempt to prevent the story running.

Yet in 2013 Leung took aim at Apple Daily for raising similar questions which his lawyers alleged were defamatory. This was followed by a defamation action against legislator Kenneth Leung and more recently Leung has threatened to sue a number of Democratic Party members on the same grounds.

One of the Democrats is Lam Cheuk-ting who reported this matter to the Independent Commission Against Corruption – nothing further has been heard about the outcome of the ICAC investigation but in 2016 Rebecca Li, who was leading the probe, was demoted and forced out.

Lam Cheuk-ting (centre). Photo: Lam Cheuk-ting.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keith Yeung, was also supposed to be leading an investigation, but any findings he might have made were pre-empted by a statement from  Carrie Lam, in her former role as Chief Secretary. On 29 October 2014 she told legislators that Leung had no need to disclose the payment as the agreement with UGL was signed in the short period after he resigned from the Executive Council and before he took up the CE position.

Meanwhile other allegations have been made arising from the UGL payment concerning conflicts of interest and settlement of tax liabilities on the money that Leung received.

The former CE had an opportunity to address these issues when asked to appear before a Legco committee investigating the saga. He never did so. While there was a prospect of his appearance news leaked that the committee’s chairman, DAB legislator Holden Chow, had given Leung an opportunity to edit the document outlining the parameters of the investigation. Chow was forced to step down and Leung then declined to appear.

CY’s defenders are now arguing that he is being “hounded” for purely political reasons. The former CE himself maintains silence but is busy throwing around threats of litigation, presumably hoping to give the impression that he is the injured party, and that his accusers are engaged in illegal activity.

Photo: Fringebacker.

The tactic of threatening litigation has worked for CY before, when Joseph Lian wrote an op-ed in the Hong Kong Economic Journal alleging that he had connections with triads. Lian was then forced out of the newspaper and Leung was spared the need to go to court to prove that he had been libelled.

Litigation of this kind is the privilege of the rich and is a tactic frequently used by powerful people to silence their critics. They are confident that they can outspend them before anything actually comes to trial and they are often proved right, as this kind of litigation is very expensive.

This is why the democrats are building up a fund to pay for a possible legal offensive from Leung, the public is responding with some enthusiasm and this is increasingly agitating the anti-democrats.

What neither they nor Leung can explain is why he refuses to spell out his position in public. He is no longer the CE but remains a high profile public figure due to his new roles on the mainland. In these circumstances he is on thin ground complaining about public scrutiny. Yet he remains silent, although deploying a battery of lawyers to issue threats. Significantly however, they have not been called upon to act against the better-funded newspaper company that was the source of this controversy.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship