The old cliché has it that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done. A corollary is that judges and the secretary for justice must not only be impartial, but must be seen as such. So it makes sense for these officers of the law to avoid association with political parties and bodies like the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. But is it necessary to avoid such association if, say, you are a barrister or even if you are the head of the Bar Association?
The new Bar Association chairman, Paul Shieh Wing-tai, makes it clear he has no wish to join the advisory body, unlike his predecessor Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung and current Law Society president Dieter Yih Lai-tak. Yuen's decision to join was controversial at the time, but he quit after being appointed secretary for justice. As the government's highest law officer, it was the right thing to do.
If invited, Shieh is, of course, free to join or decline.
"Besides becoming a CPPCC member, there are many other channels to exchange views with the legal sector in mainland China," Shieh said. "Given limited time, I have to prioritise my work."
That may be so, but many people might suspect, with reason, he simply wants to avoid controversy. If that's really the case, it's another instance of how dysfunctional mainland-Hong Kong relations have become that mere association is cause enough to be suspected of being a pro-Beijing stooge. No doubt Shieh will win kudos from pan-democratic quarters for his declaration.
The CPPCC is an advisory body without real power. But it is still a valuable channel of communication with mainland officialdom. Just because you are a member does not mean you are a pro-Beijing stooge any more than joining a Hong Kong advisory committee makes you a crony of the Hong Kong government. Moreover, if mainland officials want to interfere, there are plenty of channels besides the CPPCC.
The Bar Association has taken forthright and admirable stances on the rule of law, the anti-subversion Article 23 legislation and an independent judiciary. But this invaluable public service should not preclude advising Beijing with friendly counsel about the strong attachment Hong Kong people have to their core values.