Legal odyssey

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2008, 12:00am

Cheng Huan hardly fits the image of a legal brawler who has spent three decades locked in a battle against the forces of state power.

Sitting in a wood-panelled dining room at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, the 61-year-old legal legend is polished, with manicured nails, a mauve dress shirt and his trademark ring.

A gold chain attached to his trousers keeps his frequently misplaced keys safe and sound.

But as Mr Cheng gently spears another piece of steamed asparagus, his unassuming appearance cannot disguise the fact that this is the same battle-hardened advocate whom his adversaries know all too well.

And he is unwilling - or perhaps unable - to hold back the verbal jabs aimed at those he thinks are running roughshod over his clients.

It doesn't matter whether that client is a socialite, pop star or teenager living with his family in a tiny public housing flat; they all deserve protection from sometimes overzealous prosecutors, Mr Cheng said in an interview ahead of the launch of his book Defending the Law: 'Golden Tooth' glances back.

'There has been a marked, substantial increase in the [state's] power over the years,' Mr Cheng said. 'And there has been an unwillingness or reluctance to check those powers.'

A particular target for criticism is the graft-busting Independent Commission Against Corruption, which Mr Cheng said had often adopted 'scandalous' methods to vanquish white-collar crime since its birth in the mid-1970s.

And, so, lawyers must be nothing less than fearless when it came to ringing the alarm bells at unauthorised wire taps, withholding evidence or granting immunity to questionable witnesses, the senior counsel said.

'I'm not anti-ICAC,' he insisted. 'But the days of massive, rampant corruption are gone. Now, a corruption case involving HK$10,000 will bring the full force of the ICAC. There must be checks and balances.'

The power imbalance between citizen and state is a key theme of Mr Cheng's book, which tracks the aspiring Malaysian journalist's 1971 arrival in Hong Kong for a job with the Far Eastern Economic Review to a legal career which has spanned more than 30 years.

As the book pointedly remarks, Mr Cheng, the sixth sibling in a family of eight children, didn't set out to write an autobiography.

In fact, most of Defending the Law is dedicated to the author's journey through Hong Kong's legal history, from failed attempts to wipe out Wan Chai's sex business and tales of hard-drinking magistrates who cared more about justice than landing a promotion, to the chopper-wielding mistress who showed up at her lover's home demanding money.

'[This profession] has exposed me to a huge range of human behaviour and emotions,' he said. 'One never ceases to be surprised.'

But the criminal-law barrister does not believe the current state of Hong Kong's legal system is cause for celebration.

'There is a surplus of lawyers [in the city],' he says. 'The quality of lawyers has also gone down.'

As he chats about his adopted home, it quickly becomes clear that Mr Cheng's strong opinions are not just reserved for his beloved legal profession.

He worries about Hong Kong, even though it remains 'one of the most exciting and interesting cities' in the world.

'You can still walk down the street here and see a group of people who don't know each other talking about the most intimate of things,' Mr Cheng said.

But the future of 'Asia's World City' was by no means assured, he said.

Pollution was getting worse, the city remained a construction site and an 'unforgivable' British land policy had condemned millions of people to living in 'dingy flats', Mr Cheng said.

Perhaps worst of all, those in power had failed to promote the English language in the 11 years since the handover.

'This is a big problem,' Mr Cheng said. 'The government is not promoting it. But you must maintain English to be a world-class city.'

Those who believed that Hong Kong can remain a distinct entity with Beijing in charge had better think again, he warned.

'The decision was made that Hong Kong will be just another city in China,' Mr Cheng said. 'We lost a chance to be an international city. We are part of China. We have to face reality.

'People are flocking to Shanghai. Hong Kong has no future but the future of China.'

Mr Cheng hastens to add that he has no ambitions to alter the city's fate himself by getting into politics.

'I'm not a politician,' he said bluntly. 'You have to be an actor to be a politician. You have to say things you don't believe. I have no desire to change other people's lives.'

Mr Cheng's occupation as a barrister means he does just that, of course. Whether a client is found guilty or innocent, his actions inevitably play a crucial role in determining their future.

Sometimes the innocent are thrown in jail and the guilty walk free. It is the harsh reality of any justice system, and one that Mr Cheng admits can be 'very depressing' at times.

'It depends on the crime,' he said of defending a guilty person. 'If someone is wrongfully acquitted of a very serious offence, the only consolation is that it's not [a barrister] who decides on a person's guilt.'

He can also seek some solace in his Buddhist faith and interests outside of work, including a love of Chinese history and art.

Mr Cheng oscillates between his passion for China's voluminous past and that of Britain, where he studied law and now maintains a second home.

He is scheduled to visit Britain in the next few days, but doesn't seem to worry much about whether he will spend his retirement years in bustling Hong Kong or the relative quiet of Stockton House, his 16th-century English manor home.

Indeed, stepping down from the career that defines him doesn't appear to be on his radar screen at all.

'I hate to plan,' he said. 'I'll retire the day that I cease having an interest in the outcome of a case. That may be tomorrow, but it hasn't happened yet.'

Mr Cheng doesn't bite when asked how his detractors view him - 'I wouldn't even try to answer that question' - and he seems to have few regrets, save one.

'I don't know how to play the piano,' he said with a smile as the interview ended. 'That is something I wish I could do.'