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Hong Kong’s new secretary for justice faces delicate balancing act

As Rimsky Yuen bows out after a “heavy workload and many arduous tasks”, successor Teresa Cheng must safeguard the rule of law and pay heed to both local and national interests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 1:45am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 1:45am

Thanks to the importance of preserving the city’s separate rule of law under an independent judiciary while improving the understanding of the relationship between the Basic Law and the national constitution, no Hong Kong secretary for justice can expect an uneventful ride in office. But it is doubtful that any has been as eventful as that of Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, whose resignation was confirmed yesterday along with Beijing’s approval of senior counsel Teresa Cheng Yuek-wah to succeed him from today.

Yuen is returning to private practice after serving five years in the Leung Chun-ying administration and six months under his successor, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, to deal with an outstanding controversial issue – the joint checkpoint for the high-speed rail link to the mainland.

Teresa Cheng takes reins as Hong Kong justice secretary with ‘prime mission’ to uphold rule of law

At a briefing yesterday Lam rightly acknowledged Yuen’s performance of a “heavy workload and many arduous tasks”, describing him as “a pillar of strength in upholding the rule of law”. In that respect it was good to hear Cheng, a former chairwoman of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, define her prime mission as being to uphold the rule of law. While people might have different views about one “country, two systems”, “if we [apply] legal principles … we will ultimately arrive at the same legal conclusion”.

Zhang Xiaoming, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said Yuen had made a significant contribution to the rule of law and the comprehensive and accurate implementation of one country, two systems and the Basic Law.

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“We have to stick to legal principles, even though we know some people may not like our decision,” Yuen said. He was referring to controversial issues with which he is identified, such as political reform proposals that led to the Occupy protests in 2014 and seeking stronger sentences for activists. He was caught between calls for swift deterrent punishment and accusations of political prosecutions. The secretary for justice is a political appointment also responsible for the administration of justice. Yuen tried his best to reconcile the two roles.

Will Teresa Cheng’s expertise in legal arbitration help her handle political issues as justice chief?

Cheng will inherit a comparable range of challenges, including the joint checkpoint, the national anthem law, Occupy appeals and, increasingly likely, Article 23 security legislation. She will need to be strong and to firmly uphold the city’s rule of law, legal traditions and separate system. Her background in international arbitration should stand her in good stead in trying to reconcile opposing interests. But observers are already pointing to a lack of experience in handling sensitive political issues. Ultimately she will be judged on her self-imposed mission of safeguarding the city’s rule of law while balancing Hong Kong and national interests.