When former chief justice Andrew Li weighed in Monday on the legal conundrum that is the pro-democracy protest, he had a word to say to both sides of the issue.
He put it down to rule of law — and that’s as it should be.
Li said the protesters are weakening a pillar of Hong Kong’s core strength with their continued defiance of High Court injunctions to end their street occupation.
At the same time, he lamented government inaction in enforcing a lawful order.
And now it has come to a point where Hong Kong’s court system is embroiled in a political entanglement where there should be none.
Few have put it quite as plainly as Li, although there have been similar calls — many from their own supporters — urging the students to obey the law.
Last week, former appellate court permanent judge Henry Litton criticized the justice department for not doing anything to enforce compliance with the High Court ruling and for leaving it up to bailiffs to serve the order on the protesters and lead a clearing operation, backed by the police.
Also, he disagreed with the High Court’s handling of the injunctions and especially the haste with which the petitioners sought the order only to do nothing when it was granted.
Li and Litton may have different views about the legal aspects of the situation but I don’t doubt their competence to make those remarks and their impartiality.
As Hong Kong’s first post-colonial chief justice, Li has earned enormous public trust and high legal reputation.
But few of his public comments could have had as dramatic an impact as those about the ongoing democracy protest.
He warned that rule of law in Hong Kong is being undermined each minute the street occupation continues. It has been on long enough.
On the other hand, he recognized that the democracy protest is a matter of politics, not entirely a legal issue.
“Courts can only maintain the rule of law,” he said.
Still, the protesters have no plan to withdraw and will instead risk arrest as a matter of principle.
They are determined to send a message to authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing that they will not accept anything less than genuine democracy for Hong Kong.
In Beijing’s mind, the protests are illegal and reports last week said Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had received the go-ahead from the central government to break up the street occupation, using force if necessary.
Until now, the government has shown no interest in moving on the protesters, allowing an increasingly impatient public to turn the tide in its favor.
It has done nothing more than watch private groups take to the High Court to force an end to the street occupation.
And rather than making an effort to resolve the deadlock by political means, it is allowing things to percolate through our legal system.
The government is as much to blame for weakening the rule of law as the protesters by abrogating its responsibility to enforce it.
Having come to this, we are seeing a scenario in which Leung will win the street battle but completely lose the confidence of Hong Kong people in his leadership.
Already, they feel betrayed that Leung has failed to bridge the gap between Hong Kong and mainland China, especially on political reform and a host of social issues.
It is this inertia and lack of leadership that is exacerbating a sense of hopelessness in the young protesters about their future so much that they would break the law to get their elders to hear them.
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