It would be nice if a government proposing to legislate against “fake news” was itself scrupulously truthful. Nice, but perhaps a bit too much to hope for. Consider the latest exchanges on this topic between a reporter and our Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.

“The reporter … asked whether rumours that district councillors who were disqualified would be asked to hand back salaries and subsidies they had received since the beginning of their term would qualify as ‘fake news,’ and why the government did not clarify if the rumours were not true.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam at a press conference after delivering her 2021 Policy Address. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Regular readers will recall a piece in August in which I said the idea that the government could reclaim salaries and allowances from people who were disqualified for refusing an oath which was not required when they were elected was legally nonsense. It seems that the government’s lawyers agree. Nothing has been heard of the idea since the first disqualifications took place last month.

“‘I don’t know where the rumours came from,” said Lam. “We have a lot of rumours every day. If we have to clarify messages circling in society every day, [we] won’t be able to do anything else.”

Well, let me help Ms Lam out a bit. On July 21, the SCMP reported that “Government insiders had earlier told the Post that authorities were well aware they had a weak legal case for such a demand, but that the ‘tactic’ of floating the possibility ‘had worked’.” 

I take that to mean that the idea that councillors would be liable for a million bucks or so if they were disqualified, and that this liability could be avoided if they resigned first, was deliberately aired as a tactic by Ms Lam’s minions. The intention was that it would induce a large number of resignations, and allow the government to avoid the odium which would be attracted by an avalanche of simultaneous disqualifications.

Photo: GovHK.

I would like to believe, and no doubt Ms Lam would also like us to believe, that this deliberate dishonesty was perpetrated without her knowledge. But alas this was not the case. The Post’s revelation about the tactic which had worked was tacked on the end of a report on a “meet the press” session held on July 20.

On this occasion, Ms Lam was asked about the mass resignation of councillors, and at that time had every opportunity to torpedo the “rumour” that there would be a million-dollar penalty for district councillors who failed to jump before they were pushed.

The Post reported, “Asked if her administration would deal with the repayment issue in a ‘humane’ manner, she said: ‘Handling this according to the law is the only way out’.”

The Standard had: “For those who have been disqualified, Lam said, authorities will handle the issue of their pay in accordance with the law, and leniency is out of the question.”

I do not see how you can infer from these statements anything but that Ms Lam was perfectly well aware in July of the “rumour” and was actively engaged in fostering it.

After all, saying that the government will deal with the matter “in accordance with the law” could be considered a statement of the obvious. In some jurisdictions it would hardly be worth reporting. Even in Hong Kong I do not suppose many readers interrupted their breakfast to say, “Look, Mabel, the Hong Kong government says it is going to follow the law.”

District councillors at the oath-taking ceremony. Photo: Pakkin Leung CC BY 4.0.

Perhaps Ms Lam felt it necessary to provide this assurance because she had just announced that the government was going to flout the law on the filling of vacancies on district councils.

But what are we to make of “leniency is out of the question”? Clearly this would be understood to mean, and Ms Lam intended it to mean, that the government had a strong legal case for taking a million bucks off councillors who were slow to resign, and that no pound of flesh would be left uncollected.

So this was not some vague rumour which bubbled up from who knows where. It was a deliberate tactic employed by the government, of which Ms Lam was perfectly well aware, and in the circulation of which she actively participated.

Maybe the poor lady is losing her memory. I hope so, because the alternative is rather distressing.

I would like someone to tell Ms Lam that we do not expect her to “clarify messages circulating in society every day.” It would be welcome if she could just sort out the mendacious government ones. 


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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.