Building without equal before the law
When Hong Kong's lawmakers finish a marathon three-day session next week it will signal more than the begining of the summer recess, it will close the doors on a slice of history.
The Legislative Council building, which has played a pivotal role in the democratic process of government through two administrations for the past 26 years, will bid farewell to the shouting and jostling of spirited debate as lawmakers move to the Tamar development in Admiralty. When the building reopens in 2012, it will return to its judicial roots as the home of the Court of Final Appeal.
Former lawmaker and 98-year-old Hong Kong institution Elsie Tu has mixed feelings about the building in Central, which started life in 1912 as the Supreme Court.
'It was horrible,' said Tu, an activist in the British colonial era. 'Prisoners were locked up under the court and it was not a very pleasant feeling to know people were suffering there.'
In the 1950s and 1960s Tu regularly went to the Supreme Court building to help defendants who she considered had been falsely accused by police. 'I didn't like the feeling of the court, because I knew at that time a lot of people were there under false charges,' she said.
But it was worse when she found herself in the very same court as a defendant - in a case concerning the Star Ferry riots of 1966. She attended a Commission of Inquiry hearing, offering to be a witness, but later became the accused after some boys were allegedly beaten by police and forced to write a statement saying she had paid them HK$5,000 to throw stones. 'They gave me a horrible time,' she said. 'The lawyers for the government shouted at me and one called me a fascist.'
She refused to give the names of the two policemen who had revealed the boys' plight and finally the head of the inquiry said she would not be sent to jail or fined, but 'sent to the court of public opinion'.
Public opinion was in her favour as, 22 years later, in 1988, she returned to the building as an elected legislator representing the Urban Council. She served as Legco deputy president between 1993 and 1995, then left following defeat by Democrat Szeto Wah in the 1995 ballot. After the handover, she returned as a member of the Provisional Legco.
'I liked the atmosphere in Legco ...it was fairly peaceful,' she said. 'We didn't throw bananas. We were all very polite to each other.'
Once when she was chairing a committee meeting, she got a complaint from Martin Lee Chu-ming that Andrew Wong Wang-fat, the famously heavy smoker who later became the Legco president, was puffing away in the chamber, something that was not illegal at the time.
Tu found there was no house rule which empowered her to stop Wong. What she did was to tell the pro-democracy camp leader: 'Martin, you have to be more democratic.' Lawmakers later passed a motion permitting smoking in one room only.
Wong, now 67, who served as Legco president from 1995 to 1997, said the most memorable and regrettable moment of his 19-year spell as a lawmaker was the last sitting of legislators under British colonial rule on June 28, 1997. He recalled his closing words: 'In accordance with the Standing Orders of the Legislative Council, I now adjourn the Council, sine die [without date].
'It marked the end of an era and the beginning of another. If the smooth transition had materialised, all 60 legislators at the time would have stayed on after July 1, 1997. But Beijing's decision to set up the provisional legislative council made it impossible,' he said. With the derailing of the 'through-train' arrangement under which members of the last colonial legislature were to have become members of the first legislature of the special administrative region, 26 pro-democracy legislators were thrown out after the handover.
Wong said he never hesitated when he believed there was a need to get tough with lawmakers. In November 1996, he made an historic ruling to eject unionist Leung Yiu-chung from the Legco chamber for remarks regarding the selection process of the chief executive which he judged an insult to fellow lawmakers.
Leung described the process as 'foul grass growing out of a foul ditch' because the first chief executive was to be chosen undemocratically by a 400-strong Selection Committee, which included some legislators. Fifteen years on, Wong, who also made history when he spoke in Cantonese while presiding at council sittings in the 1996-97 session, stands by his decision.
Noting that disorderly conduct by some lawmakers, such as 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung and Wong Yuk-man, has dominated headlines in the past few years, the former Legco president said his successor Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai and incumbent Tsang Yok-sing had not done enough to handle such conduct. 'Legco's chamber is the place where you try to persuade others with your arguments, not a place for demonstration,' he said.
But Wong, who retired in 2004 when he failed to retain his seat in New Territories East , said it was natural for some directly elected lawmakers to feel frustrated because the legislature was still not returned by universal suffrage. 'Beijing should ensure early implementation of universal suffrage; otherwise it will only get itself into trouble,' Wong said.
Both Tu and Wong will take part in the farewell ceremony for the Legco building on July 18.