Being an optimist over the future of the rule of law in Hong Kong is challenging these days, but in recent weeks there have been reasons for optimism; however good news in these matters rarely comes without qualification, and indeed a sting in the tail that may prove lethal.
But let’s begin with the positives. The conviction of Donald Tsang, the former Chief Executive, demonstrated that even the most powerful people are not exempt from justice. Likewise the conviction of seven policemen on assault charges arising out of the Occupy demonstrations showed that law enforcers are also not above the law. However both of these developments also raise worrying questions.
The decision to prosecute Sir Donald for misconduct in office, and corruption involved relatively small sums of money, but nevertheless showed that even the most senior officials can expect to face the full force of law should they step out of line.
Unexplained is why the investigation into the affairs of the current Chief Executive, Leung Chung-yin has been dragging on for almost three years without any hint of a conclusion. The sums involved here, HK$50m, are far larger than the amount of money in the Tsang case but the accusation of non-disclosure of payments to the Executive Council is rather similar.
Much about the Leung case remains unknown, however we know that Rebecca Li, the person who was leading this investigation for the Independent Commission Against Corruption was effectively demoted and forced to resign. Mystery continues to surround her situation.
At the very least, a definitive conclusion to this investigation needs to be reached. Otherwise the impression of selective prosecution will linger.
Meanwhile both Ken Tsang and the seven policemen who assaulted him during the Occupy protests have been convicted. The convictions of the policemen on more serious charges, have sparked outrage in the pro-Beijing camp and provoked some very nasty attacks on the judiciary.
An offer has been made to pay RMB10,000 to anyone who assaults Judge Peter Dufton. The rabid Beijing-based Global Times newspaper writes of him having a ‘white skin and yellow heart’, thus neatly combining racism with unfounded accusations of political bias. The yellow heart alleges an association with the Umbrella movement, a claim that is entirely without foundation.
It might be imagined that these assaults on the judiciary would have elicited a firm response from the government. Leung has said nothing to defend the judiciary while his Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen has made one low profile mealy-mouthed comment referring, in general terms, to the possibility of prosecuting those who insult the judiciary.
The mass rally of police officers on February 22 reflects a high level of anger in the force, yet many officers are uneasy over the suggestion that law enforcers can somehow stand above the law.
This situation is very challenging for police chief Stephen Lo, who is understandably sensitive to the feelings of the people he leads, but needs to be mindful of the lines that law enforcers should not cross. He appears to have been more swayed by sentiment in the force. However, leadership is not a matter of following the led. It is significant that his comments over the convictions did not once mention the need to uphold the rule of law, but he did speak of his ‘regret’ over the trial, and implicitly cast doubt on its outcome by mentioning the possibility of an appeal. Unfortunately the police force has become increasingly politicized, largely as a result of government reliance on policing as the sole means of dealing with protest.
This leaves Hong Kong in a bad place as political expedience triumphs over the rule of law. The problem is that, once rule of law slips - and its implementation becomes selective - it presages a slide into a very bad place; go visit a court on the Mainland to get some idea how that looks.
caption : The Goddess of Justice is still standing, but for how long? (Apple Daily photo)