Order in the court

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 July, 2010, 12:00am

An elite gathering of Hong Kong's most eminent legal figures paid tribute last week to retiring Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang in a ceremonial farewell sitting at the Court of Final Appeal. He leaves next month after leading our judiciary through thick and thin for 13 years.

Li has made significant contributions as Hong Kong's first chief justice after the handover. He played a pivotal role in ensuring the city's judicial independence as guaranteed by the Basic Law and in defending the rule of law. Without Li's outstanding leadership and perseverance, it would have been impossible to build and develop the foundation for the new constitutional order prescribed by the 'one country, two systems' principle. His biggest challenge and the most valuable contribution he made during his tenure was the establishment of the Court of Final Appeal for Hong Kong.

At the heart of Hong Kong's success is the high degree of freedom we enjoy under the Basic Law, which allows a generous interpretation of the guaranteed rights and freedoms of individuals. Li refused to budge despite constant threats to judicial independence, upholding the principles that preserve the legitimacy of the system.

Ronnie Chan Chichung, chairman of Hang Lung Group and a heavyweight in the pro-establishment camp, seems to have ignored the objective truth in a recent, scathing attack on Li and the judiciary. 'In Hong Kong our judiciary wrongly thinks it is so almighty that it can rule on everything,' he said. 'It rules on social issues and moral issues, such as gay marriage. It is wrong to do so.'

We all know Chan, a political conservative, is unapologetic for holding strong views against Western-style democracy. Besides being the high-profile executive committee chairman of the Better Hong Kong Foundation, he is also the backer of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute. The underlying messages in his remarks are noteworthy. We should pay attention to his criticism of Li and the judiciary, and underscore his statement regarding the incoming chief justice, Mr Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li.

Chan warned that Ma should not repeat what happened in Hong Kong in the past decade. He hopes there will not be a repeat of the 1999 right of abode controversy, and urged Ma to lead the court back to the 'right track'.

The right of abode issue prompted a fierce debate and tested the 'one country, two systems' policy when the Court of Final Appeal ruled that the children of parents who have the right of abode in the city also have the right of abode - irrespective of whether their parents were permanent residents at the time of their birth.

Chan's comments run counter to the fundamental principles of most Hong Kong people. The 1999 landmark case is the most significant court ruling for Hong Kong in the 13 years since the establishment of the Court of Final Appeal. It showed how a balance should be struck between the rights and freedoms of an individual and the interests of the community.

The Tung Chee-hwa administration employed scare tactics, claiming the ruling could open the floodgates to an influx of 1.7 million children born on the mainland by allowing them to live in Hong Kong. Despite immense political and public pressure, Li ruled in accordance with the law and granted the children residency. That case highlighted an ongoing challenge to Hong Kong - the importance of judicial independence.

Unfortunately, the ruling was subsequently overturned by the National People's Congress, which reinterpreted the Basic Law.

Under 'one country, two systems', Hong Kong will continue to be exposed to political pressure. It is therefore in our best interests to have an independent gatekeeper like Li to preserve the core values of our judicial system without fear or favour. As Li has repeatedly said, the courts are not the appropriate forum for debating or resolving our political, social or economic issues.

Li has devoted a lifetime to maintaining the highest standards of integrity in his profession. We hope an independent judiciary upholding the rule of law and safeguarding individual rights and freedoms will continue to thrive under the new chief.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator