Hong Kong’s former top judge said the city needs to defend the independence of the judiciary after a Chinese policy paper stoked concerns of heightened influence by the government in Beijing.
The white paper issued by the Chinese government in June saying judges should be patriotic raised “widespread concerns,” Andrew Li, the former chief justice of the Court of Final Appeal, said today in a commentary in the South China Morning Post.
“The rule of law with an independent judiciary is universally recognised as a cornerstone of our society,” Li wrote. “It is a core value which lies at the heart of our separate systems.”
China’s policy paper has stoked debate in Hong Kong over the city’s autonomy, granted under the One Country, Two Systems arrangement put in place by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, and raised concerns over the city’s political stability as a global financial center. The paper said members of the Hong Kong government, including judges, should love the country.
The One Country, Two Systems policy granted Hong Kong its own legal system for 50 years under the Basic Law implemented after the U.K. returned the territory to China in 1997.
Li said judges should not take sides, and should have no masters. “Their fidelity is to and only to the law,” Li said.
The debate has divided Hong Kong’s Law Society, which yesterday passed a vote of no confidence in Ambrose Lam, its president, after he expressed support for the policy paper, according to the group’s website.
The Law Society also passed a vote to issue a statement to say that China’s policy paper shouldn’t undermine the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, which are core values of Hong Kong.
Public unrest in Hong Kong has increased this year as the city decides on electoral reforms to pick its new leader in 2017. The Chinese government has insisted that candidates should be selected by a nominating committee, while some lawmakers and activists have argued for public nomination.
Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a group calling for universal suffrage, said it may organize a 10,000 strong sit-in at the city’s financial district, if the reforms fail to meet “international standards.” The Chinese government is expected to issue an initial ruling by the end of the month.
The Alliance for Peace and Democracy, a group opposed to Occupy Central, said it has gathered more than 1.1 million signatures against the sit-ins. It expects 126,000 people to turn up for a protest march on Aug. 17, said spokesman Robert Chow.
“People are reading too much into the Love the Country, Love Hong Kong requirement” in the policy paper, Chow said. When a chief judge is appointed, he pledges to support One Country, Two Systems, which makes him a patriot, Chow said.
The Occupy Central protests may take place in September if China indicates there’s no room for negotiation for the electoral reforms, organizer Benny Tai said. A non-negotiable requirement that candidates must have support from at least 50 percent of the nominating committee while limiting the number of candidates to two to three would probably spur action, Tai said.
“We have to plan for every possibility,” Tai said.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students may ask members to skip classes for seven days as a first step if the reforms don’t meet expectations, Secretary General Alex Chow said.
“We don’t think there will be any semblance of real democracy,” said the students federation’s Chow. “Our bottom line is to have civic nomination.”
(An earlier version of this story corrected the name of the spokesman for the Alliance for Peace and Democracy.)