Two high-profile British figures with close ties to Hong Kong yesterday stepped into the debate about the city's rule of law, echoing calls from local judicial figures to preserve its freedoms.
Former governor Chris Patten faced questions on local affairs as he attended an exhibition opening in his capacity as chancellor of the University of Oxford, while ex-judge Lord Woolf of Barnes spoke of the rule of law as a "precious treasure".
Their comments came after strongly worded remarks in the past week by former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang and ex-justice secretary Wong Yan-lung. The concerns were sparked, in part, by last month's vicious attack on former Ming Pao newspaper editor Kevin Lau Chun-to and worries about diminishing free speech and press freedom.
"Even when you reported things about me suggesting that I was awful, I would always defend the right of the Hong Kong press to report freely and fairly on what's happening in the city," Patten told assembled journalists at the Maritime Museum. "Hong Kong's liberal society and free press, autonomous universities and the rule of law are all foundations of a free society."
Woolf, a former lord chief justice of England and Wales who was a non-permanent judge of Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal, spoke to the South China Morning Post while at a conference in the city. "I think it's always wise to be vigilant," he said. "The rule of law is a very precious treasure … Hong Kong should guard it as such and make sure it's preserved."
Li spoke out on Friday to warn that the city should be "highly vigilant" in protecting its core values. Wong joined the debate on Tuesday, saying: "We have to be particularly vigilant in our unprecedented constitutional order of 'one country, two systems'."
Wong added: "The heightened vigilance to protect the rule of law is also necessitated by the rapid integration between Hong Kong and the mainland in the social and economic realms.
"Former chief justice Li - anything that he says, I would recommend paying great attention to. I am sure he is wise," said Woolf, who served alongside Li in Hong Kong's top court.
And he agreed with Wong on relations with the mainland.
"The mainland is achieving so much in so many ways, but it hasn't yet been able to develop as advanced a legal system as possessed in Hong Kong," Woolf said, adding that rule of law benefited the mainland too, as mainland companies channelled their activities through the city.
Patten's arrival at the museum on the Central waterfront was greeted by dozens of Hongkongers waving British and colonial flags, in an internet-organised event. Both flags have become symbols of protest in recent years amid concerns about interference by Beijing.
The former Conservative lawmaker, who served as governor from 1992 to the 1997 handover, also hit out at accusations of bias in University of Hong Kong polls.
"I think that whatever or not the political science department of a university undertakes, polling is an aspect of the freedom of universities … to research and study seriously. This is important for freedom of speech. I hope that HKU will continue to exercise their autonomy," Patten said.