Hong Kong's justice minister yesterday refused to comment directly on a warning delivered by one of its most senior judges that "clouds heralding a storm of unprecedented ferocity" were gathering over the rule of law in the city.
Asked about the comments made last week by retiring permanent Court of Final Appeal judge Mr Justice Kemal Bokhary - who was reacting to statements made by former justice chief Elsie Leung Oi-sie - incumbent secretary for justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung would only say that the city's rule of law was strong and that he would "safeguard Hong Kong's judicial independence".
Speaking at the opening ceremony for the Law Society's annual law week, Yuen said: "Like the judge [Bokhary] said on that day, the judicial system of Hong Kong, especially our judicial independence, has always been firmly in place, and would not be easily damaged because different people give opinions.
"But whatever the situation is, as the secretary for justice, I and my colleagues in the Department of Justice will always try our best to safeguard Hong Kong's judicial independence and the rule of law."
Earlier yesterday, Yuen told a passing-out parade of recruits at the Police College that the rule of law is "one of the cornerstones that Hong Kong's success relies on".
"Citizens can live and work happily, and investors do business without worries only in a society where the rule of law is protected," he said.
It was the first time a top official of the administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had commented after Bokhary issued a thinly-veiled attack on forces he suggested were trying to deprive Hong Kong of its independent judiciary, saying that clouds heralding a "storm of unprecedented ferocity" were gathering.
Bokhary was understood to have been referring to calls for a reinterpretation of a 2001 Court of Final Appeal ruling which conferred automatic residency on babies born to mainland parents in Hong Kong, and a contention made by Elsie Leung - vice-chairwoman of the Basic Law Committee - that the top court had made mistakes in the past.
Leung also said the legal profession in Hong Kong, including judges, lacked an understanding of the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing.
That prompted the Bar Association and the Law Society to issue statements raising concerns over the possible impact on Hong Kong's judicial independence of seeking an interpretation of the Basic Law.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li and Law Society president Dieter Yih Lai-tak refused to comment on Bokhary's remark.
Yih said only that raising Hongkongers' confidence in, and understanding of, the rule of law was one of the key missions of the Law Society.
In response to Bokhary's comment, Eric Cheung Tat-ming, an assistant professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said the local administration should explain to mainland officials the belief in the rule of law. "There are tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland … and those in authority in Hong Kong are not defending our beliefs," Cheung said.