Hong Kong’s legislature confirmed the appointment of a new chief justice on Thursday amid unprecedented opposition from pro-democracy lawmakers, who largely abstained or voted no to reflect what they called an erosion of the city’s rule of law by Beijing.
Thirty-nine legislators, including five from the opposition camp, voted in favour of the appointment of Court of Final Appeal justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, who will become the city’s next chief justice on January 11 next year.
Five pan-democrats voted against the resolution, while 11 formally abstained, including most of the Democratic Party and Civic Party. The latter’s Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal sector, however, voted in favour of Cheung.
Ten lawmakers hailing from both sides of the political spectrum either failed to turn up or did not cast a vote.
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngor-kiu, who abstained, called the decision a “difficult choice”, but said his party wanted to highlight a bigger concern.
“We had to reflect, as legislators, that the people have great concerns regarding the state of the rule of law, regarding how the judiciary … upholding the principles with regard to the rule law,” said Yeung, a barrister.
“We needed to convey a message, the strongest message, to the judiciary … that we expect the judiciary to stand firm on the spirit of the rule of law,” he said, adding the decision was “nothing personal” in regard to Cheung.
Yeung complained about recent instances in which Beijing authorities have criticised local court judgments and issued statements that appeared to threaten the city’s judicial independence.
In November, a Beijing official publicly challenged a Hong Kong High Court ruling that a mask ban put in place by the government to quell months of civil unrest was unconstitutional.
The city was at the height of months of anti-government protests at the time, after what began as opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill morphed into citywide protests that became increasingly violent.
The Beijing official asserted that the power to rule on a law’s constitutionality was the sole preserve of the top national legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.
Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal partially overturned the ruling, saying the mask ban was constitutional, but only when employed at unauthorised and illegal assemblies.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also targeted the city’s judiciary in state media last year, urging it to “punish in accordance with the law those who have committed violent crimes”, a remark critics saw as placing pressure on judges.
The chief justice appointment has typically been an uncontroversial one since Britain handed the city back to China in 1997, though it has been a long-standing view among the opposition camp that the justice minister, a government appointee, should not sit on the selection committee.
In 2010, when the Legislative Council was responsible for appointing Hong Kong’s second chief justice, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, who will retire at the start of next year, not a single legislator cast an opposing vote.
While Ma has repeatedly issued assurances that the judiciary has remained independent on his watch, pan-democrats said Beijing’s recent move to impose a national security law on Hong Kong has fuelled suspicion that pressure could be applied on the city’s courts.
The law, likely to be passed as early as this month, is aimed to prevent, stop and punish activities amounting to secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
With few details confirmed, the law has prompted fears it might erode the city’s long-standing common law tradition.
Speaking before the vote, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said it would be wrong to suggest the national security law would affect the city’s judicial independence, adding the legislation would be constitutional.
Hong Kong barrister Peter Nguyen remembered for generosity, fairness and seriousness in matters of justice
But Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, who voted against Cheung’s appointment, argued the mainland government had stripped the city’s top court of its power of final adjudication, pointing to comments this week by a mainland official who said Beijing reserved the right to handle “rare” national security cases.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Priscillia Leung Mei-fun, meanwhile, who voted for the appointment, praised Cheung as a respected figure who had ruled on important public cases.
“I personally support very much Justice Cheung becoming the next chief justice,” she said, pointing to the experience he earned while serving as chief judge of the High Court between 2011 and 2018.
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