Hong Kong: shopping for justice?

January 07, 2019 15:49
The Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng will appear before the Legislative Council on Jan. 25 to explain her department's decision on the case of former chief executive Leung Chun-ying. Photo: CNSA

Twenty-some years ago, the main topic of conversation for people in Hong Kong was what lay in the future, when the British colony was handed back to China after 156 years. Two decades later, the conversation hasn’t changed much, with people asking each other what they thought the future held for this Chinese special administrative region, which is supposed to enjoy “a high degree of autonomy”.

Hong Kong has changed in ways few had expected. Last year, for the first time ever, a foreign journalist was effectively expelled when the government refused to renew his work visa. A political party was banned for advocating independence. These are things one expects to happen in China, but not in Hong Kong. 

The government of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is doing what Beijing wants it to do.

Last month, when Lam was in Beijing, President Xi Jinping heaped praise on her, saying that “in the past year” the Hong Kong government had been “courageous in taking up responsibilities, getting things done proactively”.

Most people understand that the government has little choice but to take action to ensure that Hong Kong doesn’t cross China’s red lines. Thus, freedom of expression has to be narrowed by not allowing even the theoretical discussion of self-determination for Hong Kong.

But the former British colony is now facing a serious issue that stems not from Beijing but from its own government’s incompetence and arrogance. This problem, involving the Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, may well threaten the city’s rule of law, which is the linchpin of its survival with an identity separate from that of mainland China. 

Cheng, who took office a year ago, found herself in legal hot water in her first week on the job as a result of her own actions.

The public was shocked by the disclosure that Cheng, a legal expert in building construction law who had authored a book on the subject, was the owner of considerable properties featuring prominent illegal structures. She said she had been too busy to rectify them. 

There were calls for her immediate resignation. The chief executive asked the public for tolerance. Let her do her job, Lam pleaded. 

After a year on the job, there hasn’t been much improvement.  

The latest controversy, in fact, suggests that she still doesn’t understand her own department’s policies. 

In December, Cheng decided that there was insufficient evidence for the Department of Justice to prosecute former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who failed to declare monies he received from an Australian firm while he was chief executive. 

The announcement caught everyone by surprise. After all, it is the department’s longstanding policy not to make such decisions on its own but to “brief out” such cases to private lawyers so that the public would not suspect that a former top official was being given special treatment.  

Last February, the department described six situations to the legislature in which private lawyers are asked to advise on criminal cases. 

One situation was “to address possible perceptions of bias or issues of conflict of interest”. Thus, the cases of former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan were both handled by outside lawyers so as to prevent the perception of bias.

But Lam continues to defend her justice secretary, saying that Cheng had made a professional decision, which should be respected. The Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung is also urging the public to “respect the professional judgment of the Department of Justice on this particular case”. 

The problem is that the people criticizing Cheng are none other than the professionals, including the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Hong Kong Law Society. They want to know why the department is not abiding by its own policy. 

People who have the best interests of the Lam administration at heart are also asking for answers, including members of her Executive Council, or cabinet.  

If, after a year in office, the justice secretary still doesn’t know how to do her job, she must be allowed to step down. Such self-administered wounds can do as much damage to Hong Kong as Beijing’s intransigence. The government can no longer expect the Hong Kong public to be tolerant. 

Cheng will have another opportunity to explain herself on Jan. 25, when she will again appear before the legislature. If even then she doesn’t come up with an acceptable explanation of her behavior, the chief executive will have little choice but to show her the door. She owes Hong Kong at least that much.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.