The Politics of Leaks

How you feel about leaks depends upon whether you are the one doing the leaking or the one being leaked upon.

For example, if your air conditioner is dripping on to the neighbour's unit causing an irritating sound, then this is a minor matter, you promise to call in the technician right away but meanwhile could he just exercise a little patience. If on the other hand your neighbour's air conditioner is dripping upon your unit, then that is a very serious matter indeed, doesn't he realize how important your job is and how much you need your sleep. At the very least he should switch off the source of the problem right now and just sweat it out.

Similarly with bathrooms. Your shower leaks through to his flat, sorry sport, the plumber is coming tomorrow and in the meantime a sense of proportion please, it's not the end of the world after all. Upstairs leaks through to your flat, on the other hand, this is a disaster, you've just painted the ceiling, he'll have to compensate you, and what kind of selfish behaviour is this. What do you mean the plumber is coming tomorrow, pay extra, get him here right now.

As it is with bathrooms, so it is in the world of politics. A selective briefing of the media that shows you in a good light possibly at someone else's expense, well that's just part of the cut and thrust of modern life. A similar exercise that boosts another at your expense is an unforgivable breach of national security.

Which brings us to the story which appeared simultaneously in several Chinese language newspapers last Tuesday. The Government had just accepted the Democratic Party's compromise proposal on political reform and Beijing had signed up for it too. The stage was set for the biggest success of the Tsang era, real progress in an area which is so vital for Hong Kong's long term wellbeing, and coincidentally a removal of the biggest stain on his Administration, the failure of the 2005 package to secure the support of the Legislative Council by the necessary two-thirds majority.

It would be inhuman not to expect those concerned to give themselves a pat on the back and bask in a brief moment of glory, before moving on to tackle the other many pressing problems facing our community.

But to show that it is always possible to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, someone then had the bright idea of leaking to the media a version of events behind the scenes which showed our Chief Executive in an even more heroic light. The newspapers were briefed - anonymously of course - that Beijing's consent had only been secured by the Chief Executive boldly bypassing the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office and, taking advantage of the absence overseas of the Vice President responsible for Hong Kong Affairs Xi Jin Ping, lobbying President Hu Jin Tao himself. A letter bravely sent direct to the President, containing the Democrats' compromise offer and recommending approval, had won the day. The President, after consulting his core team, had agreed on condition the pro-Government parties concurred.

Mere mortals such as us will probably never know whether the account rendered by these newspapers was accurate or a very one-sided version. But one thing can be known right away by anyone with eyes to see. This clearly was a leak, and the persons upon whom it dripped will have felt it as such.

And that is where the differences between domestic leaks and political ones become significant. Whereas with the former any damage is usually slight and temporary, those in the latter category can be very serious and long lasting.

By Friday the full ramifications had apparently been grasped by the Chief Executive's team. Mr Tsang made an emphatic denial on the record that the Tuesday stories were true. It is to be hoped this exercise in damage limitation is successful and that those affected accept that the leak was not authorised. After all, it is not known how much longer Mr Liao Hui will head up the HKMAO (his retirement has been mooted a few times). But for the remainder of his tenure he would not look particularly favourably on the Hong Kong authorities if he believed they had just gave him a slap in the face. And the case of Mr Xi is even worse as he is likely to be promoted in the 2012 reshuffle. In plumbing terms, he's about to move upstairs.

What a terrible shame it would have been if, in the attempt to wring the last drop of credit from a veritable triumph and gain extra credit in the short term, the result had been a long term deterioration in relations between the local administration and those in the capital responsible for Hong Kong affairs.

Meanwhile, the identity of the rogue plumber remains a mystery.