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Hong Kong political reform

The outlier: Hong Kong lawmaker Ronny Tong clashed with Civic Party on political reform

Civic Party founding member Ronny Tong is quitting the party after an at times uneasy relationship when he stood apart from colleagues on the key issue of reform

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 5:06pm

When he took the helm of the Hong Kong Bar Association on January 21, 1999, Ronny Tong Ka-wah told the media he would refrain from commenting on political issues.

But there was no shortage of controversy during his two-year tenure.

The mild-mannered barrister was frequently drawn away from his commercial law practice to react to the latest political developments, hurriedly arranging emergency meetings, and issuing press statements.

Eight days after his election as Bar chairman, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that mainland Chinese children born before their parents became Hong Kong permanent residents were entitled to right of abode in the city.

In June 1999, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee made an interpretation of the Basic Law that effectively overruled the city’s top court in the right-of-abode case.

In January 2000, Tong warned a “Damocles sword” was hanging over the head of the Court of Final Appeal as a result of the government’s refusal to rule out requests for Beijing to interpret the law.

He said the failure to make a public promise not to seek further interpretations of the Basic Law from Beijing had damaged public confidence in the rule of law. “Confidence in our legal system and the independence of our judiciary are bound to suffer,” he said in his annual report to barristers.

Tong also targeted then secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie’s handling of the Sally Aw Sian case, in which the publishing tycoon was not prosecuted for a fraud plot involving her company although she was named as a conspirator in the charges.

READ MORE: Lawmaker Ronny Tong quits Civic Party amid rift in Hong Kong's pan-democratic camp

“The Secretary for Justice seemed to have difficulty in appreciating the well-established concept that justice needs to be seen to be done,” he said. “Whatever the reasons were for not prosecuting Ms Aw, they were unconvincing and poorly put before the public.”

In 2002, Tong co-founded the Article 23 Concern Group, with former Bar Association chairmen Audrey Eu Yuet-mee and Alan Leong Kah-kit, to oppose the government’s attempt to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law – attempts that were seen by many as a threat to civil liberties and basic freedom.

Tong was directly elected to the Legislative Council in 2004 and has kept his seat ever since. Despite being one of the founding members of the Civic Party in 2006, Tong has sometimes had an ambivalent relationship with his party.

During the last political reform battle in 2010, Tong was one of the seven representatives of the Alliance for Universal Suffrage – a coalition of moderate democrats – and the only Civic Party member that held talks with the central government on political reform.

His fellow party legislators – Tanya Chan and Leong – chose to join hands with three League of Social Democrats legislators to resign from the legislature in order to trigger by-elections that they saw as a referendum for universal suffrage.

His rift with the Civic Party widened again in 2012 over the copyright ordinance saga – where the party refused to back a moderate amendment aimed at protecting satirists from prosecution that was proposed by Tong.

His relations with the Civic Party leadership turned tense in 2013 after he publicly criticised as unreasonable the pan-democrats’ support of party or public nomination for chief executive candidates.

Tong put forward his electoral reform plan in October 2013.

Ignoring public nomination, it focused on increasing the representativeness of the nominating committee. He suggested expanding the electoral base of the current 1,200-strong Election Committee to form the nominating committee.