Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

Government has wasted time opposing Occupy Central, says legal scholar

As the administration has failed to offer a well-formed alternative to public nomination, the public are taking 'extreme' positions, according to HKU's outgoing dean of law

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 July, 2014, 12:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 July, 2014, 3:51pm

The government wasted time trying to diminish and oppose Occupy Central instead of coming up with proposals for electing the city’s leader that might win public approval, the University of Hong Kong’s outgoing law dean said on Tuesday morning.

As a result the public has been forced to pick “extreme” positions on political reform – either backing the public’s right to nominate candidates or Beijing’s preference for a limited nominating committee, said Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun.

“In a way, [the government] forced people to go to the two extremes,” he said. “The only way [forward] is for the less radical democrats and the more liberal conservatives to sit down and compromise, but that space has grown smaller and smaller. And when there are no choices, you only make people go to extremes.”

Chan said the possibility of finding common ground had grown very slim. “To be honest, I’m not that positive,” he said.

“The government has wasted a lot of time,” he said. “Yes [the government] is against Occupy Central, but then what are they for? What are the alternatives?”

The debate on reform has lacked a well-formed alternative to public nomination, Chan told Commercial Radio.

The formal process of political reform begins on Tuesday when Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying delivers a report to Beijing to consider whether reform should take place for the upcoming Legco and chief executive elections.

Beijing has rejected public nomination as unconstitutional, while it’s proponents say that a nominating committee stacked with Beijing-friendly members will only put forward candidates for the election that the central government approves of.

The pro-democracy Occupy Central movement plans to stage a peaceful open-ended sit-in on Central streets if the government fails to deliver an official plan for the 2017 election that guarantees voters a genuine choice between candidates.

Pro-democracy leaders have also suggested a campaign of non-cooperation could begin before the government delivers its plan.

Asked for a legal view on the protest tactic of non-violent civil disobedience, Chan said the issue centred on whether one believes that the rule of law is in place to uphold and protect core values, or is just a way to rule over and manage a society.

“If there are laws which go against our core values, should we respect [those laws]?” he asked.

Non-violent civil disobedience could be used as a justification for a wide range of actions, depending on one’s definition of the purpose of the rule of law, the legal expert said.

In a statement last Friday the Bar Association said the government would be “abusing” the concept of rule of law if it dismissed public nomination as against the Basic Law but did not offer alternatives that took into account the public’s expressed wishes.

“Law is simply being used by the ruler as a means of defeating public expectation and no more, rather than as a means of respecting, facilitating and giving effect to public expectation,” the Bar wrote.

On Tuesday, Chan also said that while Hong Kong’s judicial independence is sound, there had been “erosion” in other areas in recent years.

“Issues such as corruption have now become more commonplace – because it’s more accepted now by society,” he said, pointing to the example of Timothy Tong Hin-ming, the former head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, who was censured for lavish spending, gift-giving and close relationships with mainland officials.

“Take the fact that the [former] head of the ICAC would even attempt to explain his reasons for giving gifts and receiving them...In the past, this would never be accepted. So have our core values been compromised?” Chan asked.

He said he was worried about the future of Hong Kong’s judicial independence, as people may begin to lose faith in the justice system.

“There are more Hongkongers aware and appreciative of our sound judicial independence and our freedom of speech,” he said. “But this independence is not just having judges which are independent, but also having people believing that they are and trusting the system is sound.”

Chan is stepping down from his position as dean of the faculty of law at University of Hong Kong, after holding the position for 12 years.