Former top judge Andrew Li Kwok-nang has expressed reservations about the view expressed in Beijing's recent white paper on the "one country, two systems" formula that Hong Kong judges have a "basic political requirement" to love the country.
In a commentary published in the South China Morning Post today, Li said public concerns raised over Hong Kong's judicial independence, following the issue of the State Council document on June 10, were justified.
"What is of great concern is the requirement in the white paper that judges should be patriotic," he wrote.
In Hong Kong, Li said, patriotism had been widely perceived as being "supportive of and cooperating with" the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, and protecting their interests.
"But under the principle of judicial independence, judges should not be pro or anti anyone or anything," he wrote. Judges were expected to be fair, impartial and faithful only to the law.
It is the first time the retired chief justice has aired his opinions in public on the white paper, which asserted Beijing's "comprehensive jurisdiction" over the city.
Controversially, the document declared that judges were "administrators" and as such had a basic political requirement to love the country.
Fears that the city's judicial independence and rule of law might be jeopardised prompted a record 1,800 lawyers to take part in a silent march on June 27 - despite an assurance by Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung that the paper "carries no intention to impose requirements other than those in the Basic Law on judges".
Critics say the paper has wrongly categorised judges as among those who "administrate" Hong Kong.
"This is unfortunate and is unsuitable," Li said. "Any concern arising from the use of the word 'administrate' in English should be dispelled."
Li also gave his take on the paper's suggestion that judges had a responsibility for "correctly understanding and implementing the Basic Law".
Judges were required to swear an oath to uphold the city's mini-constitution, and that was a sufficient and satisfactory arrangement, he said.
In the same article, Li called for rational discussion and pragmatism in thrashing out electoral reform to deliver universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election, though he said he would not engage in the political debate.
"I am worried about the increasing polarisation in society today," he wrote. "I hope that all involved will wisely and pragmatically engage in the art of compromise, which is the essence of politics and is in the best interests of the community."