Jury’s out on Rimsky Yuen’s efforts as Hong Kong justice chief
Critics claim the outgoing secretary for justice didn’t have the stomach to fight Beijing, others say he deserves credit for his hard work in what was a thankless role
Living alone in his spacious official residence on The Peak, Hong Kong’s outgoing Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung was said to have the bad habit of reheating instant noodles in the microwave for his late dinner after long hours of work.
That little-known snippet about Yuen’s personal life was revealed by former secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen. The pair and then chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor worked closely in the three-member task force handling constitutional reform back in 2013 to 2015.
“That’s why he has had a bad stomach,” Tam said in a radio interview last month. The 53-year-old minister, described by some as an “eligible bachelor”, was admitted to hospital for intestinal discomfort at least twice during his five and a half years of service in the government.
On a more serious note, Tam said Yuen had tried his very best to uphold the “one country, two systems” principle and had good team spirit. He urged the public to give Yuen’s performance a more comprehensive judgment.
Yuen probably received more criticism than praise since taking office in 2012. He is no stranger to controversy over his handling of a number of thorny issues that often touched on one of the city’s core values, the rule of law.
His latest popularity ranking dropped to 41.3 marks out of 100, the lowest of the three top officials.
It was widely reported that he was determined to leave the government and return to private practice after the term of former chief executive Leung Chun-ying ended in July, when Lam took over as the city’s leader.
With Lam’s persuasion, Yuen is understood to have agreed to remain in office till the completion of the controversial joint checkpoint arrangement for the cross-border express rail link under which national laws would be enforced in part of the West Kowloon terminus.
With China’s top legislative body endorsing the joint checkpoint plan last week, the State Council approved Yuen’s resignation with effect from Saturday when arbitration legal eagle Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah will take over.
Critics believed Yuen had no way to shift the blame for political storms that hit the city in recent years, though some suggested he was just the scapegoat as tension rose between Hong Kong and Beijing.
A graduate from the law faculty of the University of Hong Kong in 1986, Yuen’s classmates included Occupy leader Benny Tai Yiu-ting and legal scholar Eric Cheung Tat-ming.
Their roads split upon graduation and Yuen became a senior counsel in 2003, specialising in commercial disputes. From 2007 to 2009, Yuen chaired the Bar Association – the legal professional body which last week said it was “appalled” that local and Beijing officials had failed to explain the legal basis for the joint checkpoint plan.
Yuen’s first challenge in the previous administration was the constitutional reform for universal suffrage in the chief executive and Legislative Council elections, which ended in the 79-day Occupy protests in 2014 after Beijing tabled a stringent framework on August 31 in the same year.
His task in selling the constitutional reform failed in 2015 when Legco vetoed the government’s proposal.
In October the following year, the government took the unprecedented step of mounting a legal challenge to disqualify two pro-independence lawmakers for featuring anti-China slogans and banners while swearing in at the legislature.
But before the court ruled to unseat the pair, Beijing issued an interpretation of the relevant section of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, to make such oath-taking antics punishable by disqualification.
The move sparked an outcry from the local legal sector which said the city’s judicial independence was undermined.
Yuen took the heat for the saga, despite his repeated statement that local courts could handle the matter on their own.
The saga continued with the government lodging another judicial review against four more lawmakers over their improper oath-taking and eventually they were kicked out of the legislature as well.
During his term in Leung’s cabinet, Yuen also drew heavy criticism for seeking a judicial review to ask for stiffer penalties for three student activists – Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chun and Alex Chow Yong-kang – who stormed the government headquarters forecourt which triggered the Occupy sit-ins. They were originally given community service orders and a suspended jail term in August 2016.
Yuen’s move succeeded in securing jail terms for the three – ranging from six to eight months – while he declined to confirm or deny reports that he had overruled recommendations by top prosecutors that the government should not seek stiffer sentences.
“The worst [things he did] was the disqualification of the lawmakers and the sentence review of the three student leaders,” said Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal sector in Legco. “His decision has politicised legal proceedings, and turned them into a political weapon.”
He accused Yuen of bowing to political pressure from Beijing and criticised him for not doing enough to safeguard the rule of law in the city.
Kwok also referred to Yuen’s “weak” response to Beijing issuing a Basic Law interpretation, as well as the increasing criticism or even personal attacks on judges when court decisions did not go a certain way.
Others criticised another thorny issue connected to Yuen – the joint checkpoint arrangement of a cross-border express rail link. Pan-democrats blasted the agreement for undermining the city’s autonomy through leasing part of the link’s terminus in West Kowloon to mainland China and allowing officers from across the border to exercise almost full jurisdiction there without explaining what the legal basis was.
Yuen’s teacher at university, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, former dean of HKU’s law faculty, said the way he handled the co-location arrangement was most disappointing.
Chan criticised the government for not being transparent in the decision-making process, and questioned whether Yuen had fought hard for other proposals in the interest of Hongkongers.
While Bar Association chairman Paul Lam Ting-kwok has challenged the legality of the proposed co-location arrangement, he stopped short of criticising Yuen’s performance in this regard.
“I suppose Rimsky must have done his job in trying to find ways to solve the issue. I am not sure to what extent he contributed to the outcome as the decision was [handed down] by the NPCSC and there is a limit to what the Hong Kong side can do,” he said, referring to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top legislative body.
Pro-Beijing heavyweight Maria Tam Wai-chu assured the public that Yuen had worked very hard, and made a big contribution to the plan.
Sharing the same view was Executive Council member Ronny Tong Ka-wah. The former chairman of the Bar Association said he knew Yuen had worked hard in liaising with many different departments in the mainland over the past few years, but it was a pity the rewards could not be seen by Hongkongers.
“It [secretary of justice] is always a hot seat that is exhausting and unrewarding,” Tong lamented, saying all the political or legal storms were not actually initiated by Yuen.
He believed it was Yuen’s job to mount the legal battle against lawmakers who had violated rules in the oath-taking incident and the court’s judgment had proved Yuen’s sentence review was right.
“Some critics were too biased, which originated from their political stance. That was unfair to Rimsky,” Tong said. “No one knows how he communicated with Beijing on its decision to interpret the Basic Law. But I believe no one could block Beijing from issuing the interpretation.”
Senior counsel Lawrence Lok Ying-kam recalled Yuen as “diligent and attentive” during his half-year pupillage under his supervision decades ago, adding the efficiency of the prosecution division under Yuen’s term had improved. But he too had reservations over Yuen’s effort in defending the rule of law.
Putting political disputes aside, Kwok and Lam also gave credit to Yuen for his work in developing an arbitration and international legal centre in Hong Kong.