Suspicious minds

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am

Sometimes, when shoes are considered too big to be filled, it is best not to knock yourself out trying to find an exact fit. Hong Kong is now trying to fill some mighty big shoes, those of retiring Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang. If Li was retiring at the normal age of 65, those shoes wouldn't have been considered quite as hard to fill. But he's retiring early - almost four years short of the normal age, when he steps down at the end of next August. And that has set the city abuzz that something is amiss, which in turn has created the image of Li as an irreplaceable defender of our judicial independence.

Not only sceptics and cynics, but also close friends, just aren't buying his look-you-in-the eye assurance that there is nothing sinister about his early departure. He wants more time with his family, Li said, and to ensure an orderly succession, since most senior judges are nearing retirement age. Simple enough reasons, but too simple to accept for a society as politically suspicious as Hong Kong.

If Li hadn't thought of this, he should have. For a man who professes such long-term vision - thinking ahead about succession that will play out over five years - Hong Kong's top judge displayed astounding shortsightedness in his judgment of when and how to announce his early exit. It came out of the blue, like a shark suddenly appearing from nowhere and leaving you numbed with a razor-sharp bite.

The legal community declared itself stunned by his sudden announcement. Friends expressed shock. Cynics suggested something must have made him quit in despair, likely Beijing's interference in Hong Kong's judicial independence. And the politicians? Well, the politicians are stoking the suspicion to live up to being politicians. The chief justice defended Hong Kong's rule of law, championed our freedoms, upheld the judiciary's integrity as the city moved from British to Chinese rule, and his departure will leave a gaping hole in Hong Kong's legal community, they said in a quick succession of sound bites.

Who will fill these huge shoes, everyone now wants to know. But that is playing second fiddle to how exactly those shoes will be filled. That's where the suspicion comes in. Suspicion more than lingers after 12 years of Chinese rule.

When the British ran things, the early departure of a chief justice was just that, a colonial decision that was simply accepted and unquestioned. But, under the Chinese, second guessing is a staple of our politics. We feed on conspiracy theories, hunt for more and, when we can't find any, we imagine them to satisfy our hunger.

Beijing is largely to blame for having made us this way by the simple fact that it is a communist state; that it wants to, and does, have a handle in our politics; that it overruled early democracy here and that it interpreted Hong Kong's constitution to overturn a right-of-abode ruling by our highest court.

Li's departure could be as simple as he would like us to believe, or he could be hiding far more complicated reasons that have to do with Beijing, which we may never fully know.

But for now, it's a struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt unless you are of simple mind or incredibly trusting in face value. Most others would tell themselves that only saints would do what Li did - being selfless to the point of giving up his distinguished career for the overall good of a smooth succession process. It doesn't help that even his good friend and former pupil, legislator Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, is troubled by his departure.

Suspicion and second guessing did not accompany Li's selection as Hong Kong's first post-handover chief justice of the Court of Final Appeal. In fact, his selection just before the handover - endorsed by Beijing but under the watchful eyes of the departing British - had a calming effect. His successor's selection will be the first under purely Chinese rule. It comes at a time when senior mainland officials have said that the judiciary should support the executive arm - an idea alien to the very concept of judicial independence. And it takes place under a cloud that has yet to dissipate, caused by Beijing's overturning of the Hong Kong court ruling on abode rights for mainland-born children with local parents.

In contrast to the calming effect that Li's appointment brought during a politically tumultuous time, his successor's selection is already roiling the waters of suspicion well before it has even begun.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster.