Hong Kong judge who found his forte as a colourful election watchdog

Woo Kwok-hing will know what it takes to win the chief executive race – he oversaw the first two contests after the city’s handover

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 8:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 9:45pm

As head of Hong Kong’s election watchdog both before and after the handover, Woo Kwok-hing was for 13 years the government’s public face at polling time.

It was during such events that Woo, who announced on Wednesday that he would run in the chief executive election, became one of the city’s most colourful and important public officials.

Yet when he started out on his legal career he did not seem a likely candidate to reach such prominence. Woo was educated at Ying Wah College in Hong Kong and Birmingham University in England.

When he started teaching it was at the privately run and financially squeezed Shue Yan College (now Shue Yan University), rather than the elitist University of Hong Kong.

He became a queen’s counsel in 1987 – 18 years after being called to the bar. And even after becoming a High Court judge later, he kept a low profile.

It was during his first major role in public service role that most Hong Kong people got to know him, and it was a role that allowed him to blossom. When he became chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission in 1993, shortly after Chris Patten became Hong Kong’s last governor, it was arguably a golden era for elections in the city, as the outgoing British colonial government launched its political reforms, allowing the greatest degree of democracy in the city’s history.

Woo was once quoted as saying he was a close friend of Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the Democratic Party. The gung ho competitive political climate at that time was a natural fit for Woo’s bravo personality and he promoted elections energetically.

After the city’s handover to China in 1997, Woo was kept in his position as head of the election machinery as a way of maintaining stability, and he again rose to the challenge when given the biggest task of all – handling the chief executive election. He had to face public scrutiny and also interpret election rules during the first two chief executive elections, both won by Tung Chee-hwa.

When dealing with often controversial issues and decisions, Woo was essentially a conservative, but his good cheer often allowed him to get away with decisions or comments that might normally cause resentment. He allowed Tung, for example, to do his electioneering while still in office as chief executive, something critics said gave him an unfair advantage.

During his work with the watchdog, Woo continued to advance his judicial career, eventually becoming vice-president at the Court of Appeal. He was sometimes criticised as being an amateur judge due to his association with elections – an accusation he rigorously denied, even once listing the number of court cases on which he had ruled and how many verdicts he had written. But he admitted he did not actively socialise with other judges.

After leaving the commission in 2006 , Woo served as commissioner on the interception of communications and surveillance.

Throughout his years of service, Woo, 70, built a reputation of being able to work with delicate issues and with opposing camps – a skill that may stand him in good stead during the months ahead.