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Andrew Li: From early visit to Beijing to top Hong Kong judicial post

Former chief justice showed commitment to Hong Kong by not emigrating and instead putting forward his views to Chinese leaders on city’s future

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 June, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 June, 2017, 1:17pm

Andrew Li Kwok-nang was among the Hong Kong elite who decided not to emigrate in the run-up to the 1997 handover. He instead chose to stay and voice the anxieties of Hongkongers to mainland officials in the days when the city was gripped by uncertainty over the prospect of returning to China.

Born into a prominent family and a law graduate of Cambridge University, Li joined the Hong Kong bar as its 43rd barrister when he returned in 1973.

In 1983, at the age of 35, Li joined the so-called “Young Professionals Group” visiting Beijing to discuss the future of their home city with state leaders. It was his second visit to the mainland.

It was a time when China and Britain were involved in heated negotiations about Hong Kong and a year before a deal on “one country, two systems” was struck.

“We were all very anxious about the handover and the post-1997 arrangement,” he recalled. “But I did not consider emigration. Hong Kong is my home.”

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The 12-member delegation, led by lawmaker Allen Lee Peng-fei and including barrister Martin Lee Chu-ming and Wing On Group chairman Philip Kwok, found themselves in a “lively exchange” with Xi Zhongxun, vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and father of current president Xi Jinping, Li said.

“We emphasised to Mr Xi that the people of Hong Kong were very concerned about preserving Hong Kong’s system and way of life with its freedoms ... The trip was a good experience for me. We felt that our views were listened to and absorbed.”

He was appointed by last colonial governor Chris Patten to his cabinet in 1992 and made the city’s first post-handover chief justice in 1997, a post he held for 13 years.

Even though he mostly practised business law, Li proved to be proficient in leading the judiciary and dealing with constitutional cases. He heard 190 substantive cases and wrote 44 majority and seven concurring judgments.

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Academics noted Li never once penned a dissenting opinion, reflecting a desire to reach consensus.

His biggest challenge came in 1999, when then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa sought an interpretation of the Basic Law by Beijing to overturn the Court of Final Appeal’s ruling on right of abode issues.

Tung’s administration warned that the court’s ruling, which granted unqualified right of abode to mainland children born to Hong Kong permanent residents, could spark an influx of 1.67 million mainland people.

“The controversy was the most unforgettable,” Li said. “There were personal and abusive attacks against me. At that time I felt deeply the loneliness of a chief justice.”

He said he summoned all his inner strength to face the crisis but dismissed reports that he wanted to resign. “On the contrary, the controversy strengthened my resolve to lead the judiciary to discharge its constitutional role effectively,” he told the Post.

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There was another dimension to the controversy. Li had stated in the judgment that Hong Kong courts had the duty to declare any legislative acts of the national legislature “invalid” if they breached the Basic Law.

But at the end of the same year, after Beijing’s interpretation, Li’s court rolled back the declaration in another case and accepted that Beijing had the plenary power to reinterpret the Basic Law.

Eric Cheung Tat-ming, principal University of Hong Kong law lecturer, said in retrospect it was not necessary for Li to make such a bold but provocative statement as it was not relevant to the ruling per se. “Li was probably too anxious to build up the authority of his court in the early years, believing Beijing would not intervene at that stage,” he said.

That controversy aside, on his retirement in 2010, Li was hailed by the legal profession for laying a strong foundation for the post-handover judiciary.

It noted that he had established important principles including the need for the human rights guaranteed in the Basic Law to be given a “generous” interpretation, for the government to restrict rights only if they satisfied a test of proportionality and for the courts to look for guidance from comparative constitutional law, including that set down in Britain and by the European Court of Human Rights.

Li now lectures on judicial independence at two law schools in Hong Kong and on the city’s approach to the Basic Law at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

In his spare time, he reads books about horse racing – his favourite pastime since childhood – and plays tennis.