Patriotic Li may go all the way

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 1999, 12:00am

SO does Andrew Li Kwok-nang hope to win Beijing's blessing and become Chief Executive? Only a few months ago the idea would have seemed absurd, as the Chief Justice was pilloried from all sides over his initial right-of-abode ruling in January. But now it no longer seems so fanciful after he delivered a judgment on the national flag last week which was dripping with patriotic sentiments.

From faithfully quoting President Jiang Zemin to extolling 'the long-cherished common aspiration of the Chinese people for the recovery of Hong Kong', as stated in the Preamble to the Basic Law, there were few of the Beijing leadership's favourite themes Mr Justice Li failed to touch upon.

All of which was helpfully translated into Chinese by the Judiciary and reprinted in full by the two local mainland-funded papers, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao. This ensured their many mainland readers could see for themselves just how patriotic the Chief Justice has now proved himself to be.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that Mr Justice Li chose to deliver such a ruling simply in order to improve his chances of one day stepping into Tung Chee-hwa's shoes. Especially as, once he got past the politically correct rhetoric, his judgment also included some strong legal grounds for upholding the law against flag desecration.

But nor would it be realistic to pretend that the thought of succeeding to the SAR's top post has never once crossed his mind. After all, his predecessor as Chief Justice, Yang Ti Liang, tried to do just that. In 1996, he was Mr Tung's main rival in the Chief Executive contest.

Aged only 51, Mr Justice Li still has at least 14 years to go before reaching retirement age. And it is unlikely he can relish spending all of this as head of a court whose power has been so severely emasculated by the National People's Congress' controversial interpretation of the Basic Law. How much more attractive instead to finish off as head of an executive whose dominance has been so decisively demonstrated by recent events.

Indeed, long before last week's show of patriotism, some who know Mr Justice Li well were already in no doubt that he had his eye on becoming Chief Executive. They see the national flag judgment, although based on sound legal arguments, as also being designed as a mea culpa, to atone for his court having caused so much trouble over the right of abode affair with its now-discarded January ruling.

'It certainly helps in terms of rehabilitation purposes,' one said. 'In China, once you see the error of your ways all is forgiven.' That has certainly proved the case over the past few years. Indeed the upper echelons of the SAR administration are full of those who were once denounced as running dogs of the British. Most notably Sir Sze-yuen Chung, who was Executive Council Convenor until earlier this year.

And the Chief Justice has the luxury of time, especially as Mr Tung is now widely expected to serve until 2007. Even a decade from now, Mr Justice Li will still only be in his early 60s, which Beijing probably regards as an appropriate age for a Chief Executive.

By then, his initial show of defiance back in January 1999 would have been long forgotten. Particularly if he follows up this mea culpa with a few more judgments in a similar vein.

Sympathetic colleagues say it is unfair to be too harsh about the more patriotic-sounding parts of last week's ruling. These may have compared unfavourably with Mr Justice Kemal Bokhary, who managed to reach the same conclusion using strictly legal reasoning, and citing other countries which also have similar laws protecting their national flags.

But they argue he was simply performing his duty as head of the Judiciary in a region that is part of China. 'Bokhary can don the mantle of international legal scholar and get away with it,' one said. 'But the Chief Justice has a different role to play.' That role is, it seems, to lay more emphasis on 'one country' than 'two systems'. The Government is always saying it is time to adapt to the new constitutional realities. And Mr Justice Li now shows every sign of doing so with enthusiasm.

Perhaps, in time, he will even have adapted so well that Beijing will judge him the right person to take charge of the SAR.