Hong Kong’s latest political showdown involving a clarification on foreign lawyers’ role in national security cases has created divisions among the pro-establishment camp, with some backing the government’s plan to seek an interpretation from Beijing and others saying the arrangement should follow local law.
The city’s first justice minister Elsie Leung Oi-sie and pro-Beijing heavyweight Lo Man-tuen led most of the debate on Wednesday, two days after Hong Kong’s chief executive asked Beijing to interpret the national security law ahead of media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying’s trial.
The founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper had wanted to to hire British barrister Timothy Owen, a king’s counsel, to defend him against charges of collusion with foreign forces.
But Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu took issue with the potential national security threat the overseas lawyer might pose and reached out to Beijing on Monday for a clarification, despite the approval granted by the Court of Final Appeal.
The National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee’s decision is bound to have far-reaching effects on future national security cases.
Lo accused the court of resorting to “common law mentality” and “established rules from the past era when the British colonial administration governed”.
“The matter didn’t require an interpretation from the start and could have been resolved within Hong Kong’s judicial system,” he argued.
A Beijing source in charge of Hong Kong’s affairs told the Post that they were aware of the division among the pro-establishment camp on the issue.
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the NPC Standing Committee, who supported Beijing’s “clarifications” even before the court’s ruling, said he had not personally read Leung’s note but respected her suggestions.
“It’s just Leung’s personal view like many others, and Leung is no longer in her position [as vice-chairwoman of the Basic Law Committee],” Tam said.
But he argued lawyers qualified locally would be more experienced and familiar with the national security law as “they know Chinese”.
The pro-Beijing heavyweight also said because the chief executive did not mention which clause of the security law should be interpreted, it should be left to the standing committee to decide.
“It does not necessarily have to be an interpretation of some clauses. It could be a clarification, for example, but this can be left to the standing committee experts to decide,” he said, adding that Beijing would consider the impact on the city’s legal system before imposing any kinds of restrictions or decisions.
A number of business groups and pro-establishment parties also joined the chorus on Wednesday to voice their support for the government’s bid to seek an interpretation.
The list included the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong, the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, and the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong.
The court is expected to discuss on Thursday the arrangement of media tycoon Lai’s national security trial, after the justice department applied for a seven-day adjournment to proceedings pending a decision by Beijing’s top legislative body.
The judiciary expects a high turnout for the case and has reserved three floors and more than 380 seats for reporters and members of the public wishing to attend.