A Hong Kong court has ousted an opposition district councillor after finding he falsely claimed his pro-establishment rival was a “fake independent” during his election campaign more than a year ago.
The High Court ruled on Tuesday that Kwun Tong district councillor Hinson Hung Chun-hin had engaged in illegal conduct by falsely accusing his opponent of concealing his affiliation with a pro-government group with the intent to deceive voters in the 2019 municipal-level polls.
Hung, of the Democratic Party, is the first district councillor to be disqualified by the court following nine petitions filed in relation to the elections.
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The district council polls, the first elections since anti-government protests broke out in June that year, ended with a record 2.94 million turnout or 71.2 per cent of registered voters casting their ballots. The opposition camp surged to an unprecedented landslide victory and took control of 17 out of the city’s 18 district councils.
Cheng Keung-fung, the former councillor for Tsui Ping constituency, took Hung to court after he lost by 381 votes in the November 24 elections. Cheng had bagged 3,822 votes in the constituency with 12,390 registered voters.
The defeated candidate complained he was falsely portrayed as a fake independent in 6,000 leaflets Hung distributed among voters during his campaign.
Cheng said he had made public his association with the pro-establishment camp, including his affiliation with the Federation of Public Housing Estate and the Positive Synergy group.
In Tuesday’s judgment, Mr Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming found Hung had clearly made a false statement against Cheng in these leaflets by placing his image beside comments such as “beware of fake independence” and “acts against the public’s wishes”.
Those statements were “materially” misleading for the purpose of prejudicing the petitioner’s election, the judge noted.
“The allegation that a candidate had publicly made a false claim of independence is a serious allegation … There was no reasonable basis on which [Hung] could have formed the belief that [Cheng] had made a claim that he was independent,” Chow said.
He concluded Hung had contravened Section 26(1) of the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance and declared his win invalid as he was “not duly elected”.
In a second accusation, Cheng said Hung made bogus claims in another 7,000 leaflets about his involvement in two community projects while studying at Chinese University, without any real participation.
But the judge had reservations on this, after finding reasonable grounds to believe Hung had done sufficient work to claim credit in the community projects concerned.
In a statement, Hung said he was disappointed by the ruling and would consider whether to lodge an appeal after discussions with his lawyers. He said his office would continue to operate for now.
Cheng told the Post he was happy and had been “quite confident” of winning the case as he had publicly claimed he had affiliations with the two pro-establishment groups.
He added that since Hung could appeal, he would wait and see before taking further action, including whether to fight a by-election, if there was one.
Barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of the city leader’s Executive Council, said any case linked to misrepresentation needed to be based on facts, so he did not believe there would be a large increase of similar petitions targeting the opposition camp.
“An election petition will only be successful if the court believes the misrepresentation in the end has affected the election results,” he said. “These cases are fact sensitive and each case is independent.”
Alan Leong Kah-kit, a barrister and chairman of the opposition Civic Party, said pro-democracy candidates in future elections would have to be careful when publishing material as their opponents were likely to challenge them with such evidence.
“Candidates have to be very careful, and when they make some sort of allegations, they have to make sure they have cross-checked with public information, so to minimise the chances of being challenged,” he said.
In 2017, the High Court disqualified six lawmakers over improper oath-taking after the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top legislative body, issued an interpretation of the city’s mini-constitution.