In a rare public remark on a topical issue, the city's top judge has said it is natural for Hongkongers to speculate about former justice secretary Elsie Leung Oi-sie's recent criticism of the judiciary.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said Leung had every right to voice her opinion, and Hong Kong's higher courts were subject to criticism like any other body. But her background and close ties to Beijing could lead people to believe she was voicing the views of certain interests in Beijing, he said.
The judge made the comment in England, while speaking to a small group at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College. His comments were relayed to the South China Morning Post by a person who heard Ma speak.
Some law students at the talk asked Ma to comment on recent remarks by Leung. She said last month that Hong Kong's legal profession, including judges, did not understand the relationship between the mainland and the city. She then refused to explain her comment at a Legislative Council meeting, saying it could be turned into "McCarthy hearings".
Ma was also asked to comment on remarks by Mr Justice Kemal Bokhary of the Court of Final Appeal, whose recent retirement prompted speculation that he had been pushed out because of his liberal rulings.
Bokhary said last month that a "storm of unprecedented ferocity" was gathering over the rule of law in Hong Kong. He was reacting to public calls for Beijing to reinterpret a long-standing decision of the courts, "and the atmosphere created by the mere fact that this call is being made".
Ma, an honorary fellow at the Oxford college, disagreed with Bokhary's assessment, and described Bokhary's comments as "colourful", according to the person who attended the meeting.
"He [Ma] is of the opinion that this is not quite the case, and the current situation does not bother him to that extent," the person said. "He believes that the courts of Hong Kong are doing what they should be doing, namely, deciding cases according to their legal merits, and the adjudication process should not be affected by the opinions of others."
Ma encouraged attendees to assess the city's legal system from time to time. "He invited everyone to make an objective assessment of the current situation in Hong Kong, and not just take his word for it," the person said.
Ma is on a personal visit to Britain, the judiciary confirmed. "The chief justice has said that Ms Elsie Leung was entitled, just like anyone else, to comment on court decisions, but that in view of her former position … some people may read something more into her remarks," a spokeswoman said.