Safe and sound

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am

One of the best things that happened over the Lunar New Year festivities was that, albeit inadvertently, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong showed that its first instinct was to resort to the law in its continuing battle with the League of Social Democrats.

It may be argued that the DAB was over-reacting in seeking breach of copyright redress against the league for selling T-shirts using its logo to mock the party. But what is significant is that, despite all the rhetoric of wanting to embrace the motherland in every respect, the DAB was quick to resort to one of the major pillars of Hong Kong life that sets it apart from the way that the rest of China is governed.

The party did so in the knowledge that the rule of law in Hong Kong means that everyone is equal under the law and that the laws clearly set out what is permissible. Members also know that, at the end of the day, judgments are not made on the basis of political considerations.

Yet, the very people so keen to use the legal system in their battle against mockery from opponents were to be found in the Legislative Council arguing that an attempt to force a referendum on constitutional reform was 'illegal', not because it is proscribed by law but because it should be proscribed on the grounds that it contradicted their political views.

And it is among the DAB's membership that pressure is mounting for the appointment of a new chief justice who will be less influenced by such rotten old colonial conventions and will have greater understanding of the political imperatives that operate within the mainland legal system.

Andrew Li Kwok-nang, who has announced his early retirement from the post of chief justice, is seen as a stalwart of the legal system governed by traditions and practices that are frankly alien to anything on the other side of the border.

It is vital that his replacement should uphold these values but, by the simple expedient of describing them as 'colonial', they might be dismissed as irrelevant to the new Hong Kong.

There is no halfway house here, any more than there is such a thing as a semi-pregnancy: either the judiciary is independent and the rule of law towers above political considerations, or it is nothing.

This is something that ought to be well understood in Hong Kong and protected with every sinew of the government's muscle. But, as we saw early on in the life of the new regime, there was little hesitation in running to Beijing for 're-interpretation' of the law when political expedience prevailed.

Even if some people in Hong Kong would like to see the adoption of a legal system more in line with that on the mainland, citizens from the other side of the border understand all too well what that means.

On Wednesday, this newspaper carried an interesting article about mainland shoppers flooding into Hong Kong. What motivated them, they said, was a reliance on the veracity of goods sold here, from powdered milk to designer handbags. In both instances, they affirmed that they could rely on Hong Kong's legal system to ensure that the products were safe and genuine.

If the words of humble shoppers are not sufficient, maybe sceptics would prefer to view the rafts of contracts signed in Hong Kong by major corporations doing business on the mainland. These contracts are drawn up under Hong Kong law for the obvious reason that enforcement carries guarantees of impartiality and certainty. Contrast this, for example, with the extraordinary saga surrounding the jailing of Gome founder Huang Guangyu , who has only just been charged with a variety of commercial crimes after a hiatus stretching over 18 months and a continuing lack of transparency over the charges.

When this sort of thing happens to the boss of one of China's biggest companies, little wonder that others scuttle to the safety of the Hong Kong legal system.

So, which half of the DAB wants to see a more-Chinese style legal system here: the one that defends their own interests or the one that defends everybody's interests?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur