International and local press groups urged Hong Kong’s former leader Leung Chun-ying on Tuesday to stop threatening the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club over its lease of a government-owned building, as he continued his barrage of criticism against it.
In a post on Facebook that was also circulated via email, Leung said he believed the rental of the FCC building on Ice House Street in Central was a “special deal with the government” and called on the club to disclose the full lease.
“Once the full terms and conditions of the lease are known, other organisations with equally deserving causes as the FCC’s could bid for the lease. The FCC has no monopoly,” he said, a day after challenging the club to give up its lease and bid for the premises in the open market.
The former chief executive has been highly critical of the FCC’s refusal to cancel an August 14 talk at its premises by separatist party leader Andy Chan Ho-tin despite a request from Beijing to do so.
On Tuesday, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) described Leung’s remarks as an attempt to “muzzle and publicly threaten an organisation that strongly defends the media’s role to hear from all areas of society and politics”.
“The IFJ strongly urges Leung to retract the open letter and the threats made on the FCC over the right to occupy its current premises,” Jane Worthington, acting director of the IFJ in Asia Pacific, said.
Ex-leader CY Leung dares Foreign Correspondents’ Club to give up lease and make open bid for site as Andy Chan row escalates
The director of Reporters Without Borders’ East Asia bureau, Cédric Alviani, said Leung’s comments were “totally out of place and only shows that Leung runs out of arguments to justify the Chinese censorship attempt”.
Chris Yeung Kin-hing, chairman of Hong Kong Journalists Association, added: “Leung is essentially asking the FCC to cancel the talk by Chan and stop inviting similar guests in future, or else the lease might not be renewed or even be taken back earlier.
“That’s blatant political pressure.”
Yeung pointed out that the FCC’s lease was actually renewed during Leung’s term as the city’s chief executive, which ended last July. The government and not the FCC should explain the arrangement, he said.
The FCC said it had no comments to add on Tuesday. But a member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he could not see how the lease had anything to do with the controversy, and added, “There is no point in engaging in a debate with Leung.”
Separately, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, said the proposed ban on Chan’s Hong Kong National Party was “reasonable and rational”, as any advocacy of independence would not be allowed.
The party is facing a possible ban by Hong Kong authorities for being an “imminent threat” to national security.
The row over Chan’s talk first erupted last week when China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the FCC not to provide a platform for Chan, with the club saying it would proceed in the interest of hearing views from across the political spectrum.
Over the weekend, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor described the FCC’s decision as “regrettable and inappropriate” with Leung weighing in through posts on his Facebook page.
On Tuesday, Leung said he and several professionals were “surprised” that the lease of the FCC’s premises was not for public inspection from the Land Registry and called on the club to disclose it.
According to the government, the building is on a seven-year lease until 2023 and the club pays market rent amounting to HK$580,000 (US$74,000) monthly.
Leung, one of Hong Kong’s two vice-chairmen at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top advisory body to Beijing, referred to a statement by the FCC’s board of governors on Monday where it stated its belief that “in free societies such as Hong Kong it is vitally important to allow people to speak and debate freely, even if one does not agree with their particular views”.
“I am not sure how many private landlords in Hong Kong would welcome a tenant who hosts such speakers,” he said. “Putting it very mildly, why should the [Hong Kong] government be any different?”
Dr Lawrence Poon Wing-cheung, a scholar of housing policy at City University, said Leung “need not be too surprised” as it was quite common for leases not to be made public in the Land Registry, unlike sale and purchase agreements.
“Registering the lease is an attempt to protect oneself. The FCC might think that it is highly unlikely for the government to lease the premises to other parties behind their back and so it did not bother to register the lease,” he said.
It was also quite common for the parties not to disclose such deals especially when they involved commercial decisions or secrets, Poon added.
“But after all, it depends on public sentiment. The government could press the FCC to disclose the lease if society one day believes that the information should be made public.”
Roger Nissim, adjunct professor of the real estate and construction department at the University of Hong Kong, also believed the unique role of the FCC had allowed them to stay where they were, subject to regular reviews of their lease.
“If the use was of a more general commercial nature such as a restaurant … then, on expiry, the sitting tenants will have to win the bid in an open tender situation in order to stay,” he said.
Additional reporting by Shirley Zhao