No politically interesting event in Hong Kong is complete without an outburst of venomous fantasy from CY Leung, and his latest assault on Apple Daily was no exception.

It is difficult to know what metaphor suits Mr Leung. When he looks in the mirror, I suspect, he sees a De Gaulle-like figure waiting in Colombey-les-deux-Peak-palaces for the call of destiny. For the Liaison Office, as least in its more soothing moments, he is the mad aunt in the attic who one hopes will not come downstairs while the vicar is visiting.

Apple Daily headquarters. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

For many Hong Kong people he is the personification of a particularly pungent odour that refuses to disperse no matter the cleanser applied. After one term of office, Mr Leung’s brand was too toxic even for his mainland handlers, but hope springs eternal in the patriotic breast. After all, so much of the political opposition has been silenced…

When four Apple Daily executives were arrested there was, of course, a chorus of approval from the usual people. However, as reported at least, they carefully avoided comments on the merits of the individual case. We did not perhaps need to be reminded that the National Security Law applies to everyone, or that freedom of the press does not allow media to break the law. But these general comments are not actually prejudicial to the upcoming trial.

No such inhibitions hampered the muse of Mr Leung, who cheerily trumpeted on Facebook the view that Apple Daily was “the shame of Hong Kong” and “the shame of the journalism industry around the world”. Well, it is not for me to speak for Hong Kong, but I will venture a wild guess that the journalism industry around the world does not wish a poisonous political failure to speak for it, and is very far from regarding Apple Daily as a source of shame.

Mr Leung proceeded to perpetrate an obvious error: “Calling on other countries to impose sanctions on their own country is regarded as treason all around the world.” No it isn’t. The meaning of treason varies from place to place, but is usually reserved for two crimes: 

  • murder or attempted murder of the monarch, with the Royal family or senior leaders sometimes included, 
  • and assisting an enemy of the state in time of war.
Leung Chun-ying. Photo: GovHK.

Calling on other countries to impose sanctions appears on nobody’s list, and indeed in countries enjoying freedom of speech it would be surprising if it did. I have no doubt that in the US and Europe people are defending China’s retaliatory sanctions against American and European organisations and individuals as entirely justified. And these people are not being arrested.

Mr Leung went on to ask darkly “Do you know the penalty for treason?” Readers are evidently expected to infer that the penalty for treason is death, so those accused in Hong Kong who are merely being subjected to imprisonment without trial should consider themselves lucky. But this is far from true. Countries which have abandoned capital punishment for other purposes have abandoned it for treason as well, preferring a maximum of life imprisonment.

That is just the maximum of course. Two Norwegian teenagers who committed treason by throwing a cake at the King were subjected to small fines.

It is almost a relief when Mr Leung reverts to the usual platitudes: nobody is above the law, and press freedom does not confer immunity. Well of course we would like to think that nobody is above the law, but recent events have rather suggested that some people and newspapers are in fact less submerged by the law than others.

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

I am frankly getting fed up with this line that press freedom does not mean you are above the law. Of course it doesn’t. Nobody in Hong Kong has suggested at any time that press freedom required media organisations to be above the law.

The recognition of this important principle, though, does not mean that any law which the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office can dream up will not be a threat to press freedom. Some laws are compatible with press freedom and some are not.

It is quite clear that just as the laws governing politics and government are being used to promote a particular result, some parts of the national security legislation are being used to remodel the media along lines desired by our imperial rulers.

I would not wish it to be said, when they come for me, that I was silent when other people were being muzzled. The campaign against Apple Daily is clearly motivated by the desire to put a dissenting voice out of business. The law is merely a means to a political end, deployed by a regime which likes to praise the rule of law but scorns to practice it.

The Liaison Office has repeatedly said “Hong Kong is a city under the rule of law and everyone is equal before the law.” 

Methinks, as the Queen said, the lady doth protest too much.


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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.