Barristers have come out in strong defence of Hong Kong's judicial independence, a day after the central government published an unprecedented white paper outlining Beijing's "comprehensive jurisdiction" over the city.
The Bar Association said it was "erroneous" for Beijing to place local judges in the same category as "Hong Kong's administrators", including the chief executive and top officials.
While courts elsewhere might "sing in unison" with the government, that was not the case in Hong Kong, it said.
"Any erroneous public categorisation of judges and judicial officers as 'administrators' or official exhortation for them to carry out any political mission or task" would send out the wrong message to Hongkongers and the international community, it said.
In the white paper, issued by the State Council on Tuesday, Beijing suggests judges "have on their shoulders the responsibility of correctly understanding and implementing the Basic Law".
It also says administrators - including, for Beijing, judges - have a "basic political requirement" to love the country.
The Bar Association took exception to the paper categorising judges as administrators and officially ordering them to fulfil political roles.
That sent out a message that Hong Kong courts were not independent, it said.
Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung disagreed with the association.
He said last night: "People need not be overly sensitive or read too much into certain wordings. I hope people will read the entire white paper in a positive attitude and not from the view of a conspiracy theory."
The association also cited its own remarks, made in 2008 when it was chaired by Yuen, which read: "The judiciary in Hong Kong has always been, and under the Basic Law it shall remain, separate and independent from the executive and the legislature".
But Yuen said the comment was not relevant in this case as the judiciary was part of the political structure, not the governance team. Elsie Leung Oi-sie, deputy director of the Basic Law Committee, said the judiciary was part of the city's political structure under the Basic Law.
"There is no conflict between judges performing their duties independently, without fear and favour, and safeguarding national interests as Hong Kong residents," said Leung, a former justice secretary.
The Basic Law states Hong Kong courts shall exercise judicial power independently and free from any interference, she noted.
Former association chairman Ronny Tong Ka-wah, now a Civic Party lawmaker, felt the white paper had misunderstood the city's judicial system.
"There are many foreign judges in Hong Kong," he noted. "To ask them to be patriots means they should be close to government - but then how can Hong Kong keep its rule of law?"
The Law Society, which regulates the city's solicitors, declined to comment immediately.
Vice-president Thomas So Shiu-tsung said he saw no change in Beijing's attitude on the city's judicial independence.