Proficiency prevails over politics

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2005, 12:00am

The imminent appointment of senior counsel Wong Yan-lung as the new secretary for justice, succeeding Elsie Leung Oi-sie, has been widely welcomed, and understandably so.

For one thing, Mr Wong has a reputation for intelligence and integrity, which are prerequisites for the job. Perhaps even more important, he has a low profile and is not identified with any political camp.

Mr Wong is the third nominee for secretary for justice. The first, Ronald Arculli, was picked by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in 1997 but was rejected by Beijing. Widespread reports that Mr Arculli would be on Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's new Executive Council suggest that Beijing no longer objects to him.

In 1997, Mr Tung kept the entire government team that he inherited from governor Chris Patten. The only exception was the secretary for justice. That was because the last attorney general, Jeremy Mathews, a British national, remained in his job until June 30, 1997: under the Basic Law, he had to be replaced by a Chinese national.

It was in the wake of Beijing's rejection of Mr Arculli that Miss Leung, a known pro-Beijing solicitor who specialised in family law, was chosen for the position.

Over the years, Miss Leung has been embroiled in many political controversies, in particular the decision in 1999 to invite the National People's Congress Standing Committee to interpret the Basic Law - overturning a decision by the Court of Final Appeal on the sensitive right-of-abode issue.

No doubt her good contacts in Beijing and her political credentials have also been useful to Hong Kong. It is understandable, therefore, that she may be kept on in an advisory position even after her formal retirement as justice secretary.

While Mr Wong has been praised for his low profile, it is wrong to call him politically neutral. It is certainly untrue that he has no political position. But a low-profile candidate does not attract controversy, which is a virtue in itself.

Moreover, it would be wrong to assume that people without principles - or whose principles are malleable - make the best candidates. Mr Wong clearly does have principles in which he believes. His long years of involvement with a Christian concern group for the homeless - both as a voluntary worker and adviser - shows that he cares about his fellow human beings. He has spoken publicly about freedom of speech and on anti-discrimination legislation, which reflects his values.

In 1999, he took part in the protests organised by the Bar Association against the Standing Committee's interpretation of the Basic Law. He was on the Bar Council at the time, and naturally supported the position of the Bar Association.

Once he becomes the secretary for justice, however, it will be his job to uphold the law, and the Standing Committee's interpretation is now part of Hong Kong law. Mr Wong no doubt will uphold it. The chief executive's apparent decision to pick a barrister known for his competence rather than for his political stance is to be applauded. Beijing's willingness to accept such a choice also shows that it has learned a few lessons over the past eight years.

Li Gang , deputy director of the central government's liaison office, said that the new justice secretary must love China and love Hong Kong. It is unfortunate that people's patriotism should still be questioned. In a mature society, there should be no impugning of anyone's patriotism. No one should be put in the position of having to prove his patriotism. This is another lesson that Beijing should learn.

Frank Ching is a writer and commentator based in Hong Kong