A Hong Kong Judge's Warning

Wall Street Journal   January 14, 2010

Judicial independence cannot be taken for granted.

Hong Kong is a special part of China, thanks to the basic freedoms its citizens enjoyˇXfreedoms that are protected by its independent judiciary. So when the territory's Chief Justice stands up in public and warns against politicization of that institution, his words deserve a wider audience.

In a speech to the Hong Kong bar on Monday, Andrew Li said: "The independent judiciary has a vital constitutional role to ensure that the acts of the executive and the legislature comply fully with the Basic Law . . . and that our fundamental rights and freedoms, which are at the heart of Hong Kong's system, are fully safeguarded." He received a standing ovation.

Mr. Li knows of whence he speaks. The rights enshrined in Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, have slowly eroded since the territory's 1997 handover to China. In 1999, Beijing "reinterpreted" Mr. Li's ruling on the right of abode for children born in mainland China to Hong Kong citizens at the request of then-chief executive Tung Chee Hwa. In 2004, Beijing retracted on the promise of allowing Hong Kong to decide whether it wanted direct elections for the chief executive and legislative assembly in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

This trend is especially disturbing given China's vise-like grip over all three branches of government in Hong Kong's smaller neighbor, Macau. "The arrangement for one jurisdiction may not be appropriate for another," Mr. Li warned, adding that is "important" that Hong Kong "maintain its links with leading common law jurisdictions."

Mr. Li will retire early in August, and it's unclear who will replace him. If the past 12 years are any guide, he will have his work cut out for him.