Sense of continuity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 1996, 12:00am

IT would be deeply destabilising for Hong Kong to find those responsible for administering the rule of law replaced on the night of the handover in 1997.

In that context, the Government's decision to extend Chief Justice Sir Ti Liang Yang's appointment until February 1997 is a sensible move. Sir Ti Liang may have his shortcomings. In particular, his recent attack on the Bill of Rights displayed a poor grasp of basic legal principles. But the disadvantages of having him remain for a further eight months are far outweighed by the potential benefits. These consist of being able to consult the Chief Executive-designate on the choice of a successor who, it must be hoped, will then be allowed to straddle the transition.

Sir Ti Liang's extension comes shortly after the decision to delay the departure of Attorney-General Jeremy Mathews until at least the year's end. In a recent speech, Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang signalled that the Government 'hoped' to have a local successor in place by then.

Taken together with the granting of a one-year contract to the new Independent Commission Against Corruption chief, Michael Leung Man-kin, so that his appointment comes up for renewal next January, this suggests the Government is striving to keep its options open in the hope of finding consensus candidates who can ride the through-train for these particularly sensitive posts.

This will not be an easy task. It requires consultations with the Chief Executive, who may not be chosen until early autumn and will have other pressing priorities. A still greater obstacle is that, if such nominees are to remain in office after the handover, the Basic Law requires their appointment to be approved by Beijing. Chinese officials have recently made clear that this is a 'substantive power' and not a formality, as was originally believed. But the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly on the mainland. Even if the Chief Executive can be persuaded to pick the preferred candidates quickly, it will be difficult to have them confirmed by Beijing before the contracts of Sir Ti Liang and Mr Leung expire. But this is no excuse not to try.

The collapse of hopes for a civil service through-train raised the theoretical possibility of a wholesale changeover of principal officials on the night of the handover. Such a change right on deadline would be bad enough if it happened to policy secretaries in the Government Secretariat. It would be disastrous if it also involved those charged with maintaining the rule of law.

At a time of uncertainty, it is more vital than ever for these posts to be filled by figures who enjoy the trust of the community. That will be a much easier task if they can enjoy continuity across the transition. The Government's attempts to facilitate this are to be encouraged.