In his usual underwhelming tone, Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang has made a bombshell statement. Speaking at the opening of the legal year yesterday, he made no mention of the contentious row triggered by the proposal to implement national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law. Indeed, he protested after the ceremony that he was not referring to the proposed anti-subversion laws, as that would not be appropriate. But he must surely have had the issue in mind when he said the rule of law could continue to thrive only as the result of vigilance, not only in relation to the enforcement and interpretation of laws, but also to their formulation and enactment. Traditions hold that judges do not make public comments. Yesterday was the only occasion in the legal calendar that afforded the head of the Judiciary a once-in-a-year chance to articulate his thoughts on issues that confront the Bench and the community at large. That the chief justice has thought it necessary to make what is essentially a plea for rational debate suggested that he is concerned about the way in which important legal issues, particularly Article 23, have become polarised since the handover He probably has in mind the fact that any prosecution under Article 23 is likely to end up in the Court of Final Appeal, and he knows what it is like to have to rule on an issue which has split the community. After the right of abode affair, in which a top court ruling in 1999 upholding the right of abode in Hong Kong for children born to permanent residents was overturned by the National People's Congress, people said the same head-on clash and emotive taking of sides should not be allowed to cloud an important constitutional issue again. Unfortunately, Article 23 is heading that way, with latent fears about Beijing being activated as a result of a zealous attempt by officials to defend their proposals. The chief justice does not appear to be targeting any particular faction, making clear that his comments apply as much to the government as to its critics. Judicial etiquette also barred him from employing the very strong language used by Bar Association chairman Alan Leong Ka-kit, who cited the recent prosecution under the Public Order Ordinance as an example of the government using the law as an instrument to govern rather than for protecting rights. But it is interesting to note that the chief justice placed emphasis on individual rights as being central to the rule of law and lying at the heart of Hong Kong's separate system. To heal the rift in the community, Mr Li's call for rational and meaningful debate should be heeded. The government could help that process by publishing a white bill on Article 23 to diffuse the criticisms.