Hong Kong Needs a Champion

Rule of law is threatened in Asia's pre-eminent financial center.

Controversial anti-sedition legislation may be reintroduced.

Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

When he retired from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal in 2012, Justice Kemal Bokhary predicted that a “storm of unprecedented ferocity” was gathering over the city’s judicial system and rule of law. Though dismissed as alarmist at the time, he’s turned out to be right. And all of Hong Kong’s friends -- both within and abroad -- should be paying attention.

The latest blow fell last week, when the Standing Committee of China’s parliament intervened in the controversy surrounding the swearing-in of two young and rebellious lawmakers in Hong Kong. The pair had deliberately sabotaged their first oath-taking by using insulting language and displaying banners that read “Hong Kong is not China.” While egregious, their behavior could have been dealt with under the Hong Kong legislature’s own disciplinary procedures. Indeed, the case was under review in the Hong Kong courts. Yet the Standing Committee went ahead and barred the lawmakers from retaking their oaths, interfering directly in Hong Kong's judicial processes.

Hong Kong's Autonomy

The irony is that the courts came to the same decision on their own, ruling against the pair this week; China's intervention was completely unnecessary. The move has done grave damage to the rule of law, a fundamental pillar of the city’s system of governance. It threatens the autonomy guaranteed both by international treaty -- between China and Britain -- and our own Basic Law. In a striking march last week, thousands of legal professionals took part in a silent protest against the decision.

This would be bad enough in isolation. But China’s intervention appears to be part of a larger plan. In recent years, the city has witnessed a progressive erosion of freedom of speech and of the press; threats to academic freedom and the autonomy of our universities; extra-judicial abduction and detention of Hong Kong citizens in China; and the arbitrary and unexplained removal from a top post of a respected anti-corruption investigator, who was looking into allegations involving Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

The fear now is that the Standing Committee’s “interpretation” of the Basic Law might be extended to include other legislators who have been sworn in, but who campaigned on similar platforms to the ousted pair. The loss of just two more seats would deprive the pro-democracy camp in the legislature of its ability to veto controversial bills and prevent unwelcome changes to rules and procedures.

Even more worrying is the possibility, floated by Leung last week, that the government may now reintroduce controversial anti-subversion legislation aimed at treason, secession and sedition against China. While Hong Kong is bound to enact such legislation at some point, the government has held off ever since a first draft provoked massive street protests in 2003. Meanwhile, the central government in Beijing has made clear there will be zero tolerance for any form of social activism that promotes Hong Kong’s separate identity from the rest of China.

Hong Kong citizens find themselves in a lonely place -- desperately in need of a champion who will stand up for their interests, but with none in sight. The city’s government has failed them, led by a Chief Executive who appears more concerned with pleasing Beijing and winning reelection next year than with maintaining Hong Kong’s place as a vibrant financial hub. Britain, bound by treaty to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy, is increasingly reluctant to ruffle the feathers of an important trading partner.

Perhaps the saddest part is how many Hong Kongers -- not just the pro-Beijing camp within the legislature, but many members of the business community -- are willing to acquiesce to this whittling away of the bulwarks of our free society. If Hong Kong bankers and business leaders think that interference in the judicial process will be strictly limited to political and social issues, they’re sadly mistaken. Now that a precedent has been set, what is to prevent Chinese leaders from intervening in commercial disputes involving mainland companies? Where will it end?

This has been the fear ever since Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997. Nearly two decades later, the city remains Asia's preeminent financial center, a global fintech hub and a great source of wealth and expertise for the mainland. It should be in everyone’s interest to defend its autonomy and its reputation for transparency, efficiency and rule of law. Not just Hong Kong's friends, but China's should remind leaders in Beijing of what they risk losing if they persist in their self-destructive course.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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