Former Hong Kong judge puts on confident show despite absence of backers in bid for top city job

Woo Kwok-hing takes questions on incumbent Leung Chun-ying’s performance and political reform, but gets muted response from lawmakers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 11:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 October, 2016, 1:12am

He may have announced his bid for the city’s top job without any supporters present and devoid of a prepared platform or cabinet line-up, but as the question marks piled up over the seriousness of his election bid, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing appeared to brim with confidence.

“I believe I am better positioned and can be more capable than other election candidates in becoming an effective bridge among Hong Kong people and between Hong Kong and China,” the 70-year-old said on Thursday.

The retired judge chose to make his announcement in a small meeting room at the Duke of Windsor Social Service Building in Wan Chai, rather than a grand venue like a five-star hotel or the Convention and Exhibition Centre used by past aspirants.

Watch: Retired judge throws hat in the ring for Hong Kong’s chief executive election

There was no backdrop or any other set-up in the room. His election website was still under construction. Helping him were two women from a public relations firm. His son and daughter-in-law came to show support.

An uninvited guest was Jennifer Cheung Ng Chui-yiu, a supporter of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying who attended his campaign launch in 2011. She declined to identify herself and only told reporters she had come to see what was happening.

Woo, saying he had “no political baggage” and no scandals to be exposed, was in a combative mood and not without wit.

In the 90-minute press conference, Woo responded at length to a wide range of questions from Leung’s problems to his views on national security legislation.

Woo first hit out at the current chief executive. “I do not think Mr C. Y. Leung has been able to address public grievances and halt the division of our society to ensure that Hong Kong’s best overall interests are served.”

The retired judge said it “really doesn’t look good” that Leung put his own name as a plaintiff in the recent legal bid to disqualify two localists who insulted China, when the justice secretary alone should be in charge.

Addressing doubts about whether Beijing would accept him at all, Woo said he had not contacted the central government but did inform liaison office officials – not its chief Zhang Xiaoming – of his intention to run in the past few months.

“The message I got from people who had contacts on the mainland told me that the central government had ‘no response’,” he said. “But this doesn’t mean they had ‘no comment’.”

Woo did not present his election platform on Thursday. However, he said political reform was his top and only priority because failure to make progress in the past 19 years had plunged Hong Kong into division and conflict.

“When political reform is resolved, everything else will become easy,” he said. Housing, a major issue taken up seriously by the chief executive, was “less important”, Woo said.

But Woo refrained from spelling out his views on a desirable framework to achieve universal suffrage.

He said the “gradual and orderly progress” approach required by the Basic Law should be followed but the process should be expedited, and the stringent framework laid down by Beijing in 2014 for reforming the chief executive election was “definitely not acceptable”.

What should be done, Woo said, was to gather people’s views and compile them in an “honest” report to submit to the central government.

On national security, for which a controversial bill was scrapped in 2003 after 500,000 people took to the streets, Woo had this to say: “You might not like to hear this, but Hong Kong has the duty to make the law now 19 years have passed [since the handover].”

He asked Hongkongers not to feel “frightened” about the prospect of such legislation, as long as the city made the law itself with proper consultation and scrutiny to ensure the people’s core values would be protected. “If we don’t do it, the [mainland’s version] might be introduced ... You’ll find it even more unbearable.”

Speaking of core values, Woo, contrary to arguments made by some mainland scholars, stressed the Hong Kong system was based on the separation of powers, and the judiciary had the “greatest” power.

Woo said he had not approached anyone yet to form a cabinet, but he was not worried because it would be easy to get talent from the civil service.

Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said Woo shared the camp’s views on political reform and rule of law, but it had not decided who to back. “Woo is a man of integrity and depth. He needs no sophistry or scheming to deal with problems.”

Executive councillor Bernard Chan said it was good to see Woo joining the election to make it competitive. But he added that while Woo would appear to be fairer, it was not clear how he would handle complicated political issues.

“It is not always black and white when handling issues, you need to find a balance ... That would be more difficult than making a court judgment,” he said.

Leung Chau-ting, head of the Federation of Civil Service Unions, said if Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah was running, he was likely to be more preferred by civil servants than Woo.

Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Alice Mak Mei-kuen said without seeing actual election platforms, especially on the working class, it would be difficult to comment on whether Woo or other candidates would make a better leader.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Cheung