Mainland appointment a test for Bar chief

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2008, 12:00am

The appointment of Bar Association chairman Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung to a political body that advises the Guangdong government has understandably raised eyebrows and sparked lively debate. This was a surprise move, revealed just three days before his re-election unopposed as leader of the barristers' branch of the legal profession last night. Fears have been expressed that the appointment will undermine the independence of the Bar, which has, in the past, been an important and outspoken defender of the rule of law.

Such concerns are to be expected. But there is no reason to believe that his appointment will jeopardise the Bar's proud traditions. No one should be condemned or criticised merely for accepting an appointment to a body such as the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Leading members of the professions have long been appointed, in a personal capacity, to political bodies both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. This is also a practice adopted around the world. It may be seen as an attempt to co-opt potential critics and get them on the government's side. But is also a way of ensuring their views are heard and, perhaps, help improve governance.

It is to be hoped that Mr Yuen will bring fresh opinions and ideas to the Guangdong CPPCC. He will now be under greater scrutiny in Hong Kong. It will be up to Mr Yuen to demonstrate that his independence - and that of the Bar - has not been compromised. He must show that no conflict of interest arises as a result of his appointment to the advisory body.

Mr Yuen naturally dismisses fears for the independence of the Bar, or that he would be inhibited in speaking out on matters of public interest. He also maintains that his new role will allow him to promote the rule of law on the mainland and enhance dialogue with mainland legal bodies. These are worthy objectives, although they can also be pursued in other ways. The move has upset some members of the Bar Association, including former chairmen who are now prominent members of the pan-democratic camp. One of their concerns is the timing of the announcement. It was made too late for anyone to stand as a candidate against Mr Yuen in yesterday's election of the Bar chairman for the year ahead. Mr Yuen explained yesterday that he did not know he had been appointed to the CPPCC until after the deadline for nominations for the Bar post.

But not all members of the Bar disapprove of the chairman's appointment to the CPPCC. It is significant that he enjoys the unanimous support of the 23 other members of the Bar Council, the association's governing body.

The independence of the Bar must be preserved. In the past, it has played a key role in standing up for the rule of law on sensitive issues. These include Beijing's interpretations of the Basic Law and the proposed new national security laws under Article 23. The chairman of the Bar, who is the public face of the association, must be able and willing to speak freely and fearlessly on such issues. The test for Mr Yuen will come if a similar controversy erupts. He will have to be careful to show that he is forming his views objectively and independently, rather than being constrained by any official line.

Mr Yuen has emphasised the potential advantages of his appointment. Those benefits stand to be gained, but they depend on whether he is able to safeguard his own independence. He should be judged by his actions in the year ahead, rather than criticised merely for accepting this appointment.