Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Hong Kong rule of law in ‘grave danger’, quitting judge warns

Hong Kong rule of law in ‘grave danger’, quitting judge warns
The Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong, China. (Photo: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg)

A prominent UK judge who resigned from Hong Kong’s top court last week warned of “grave danger” to the rule of law in the finance hub in a scathing critique of China’s crackdown on dissent.

Jonathan Sumption, who until recently served as an overseas judge at the city’s Court of Final Appeal, said the former British colony “is slowly becoming a totalitarian state” in an op-ed in the Financial Times on Monday. His comments come as a wave of departures of foreign judges threatens to dent confidence in a legal system key to the city’s appeal to global businesses.

“Hong Kong, once a vibrant and politically diverse community, is slowly becoming a totalitarian state,” Sumption wrote. “The rule of law is profoundly compromised in any area about which the government feels strongly.” 

The Hong Kong government expressed “strong disagreements” with Sumption’s comments in a statement on Tuesday. Any suggestion that courts are pressured by Beijing would be “utterly wrong”.

Sumption and Lawrence Collins last week joined the ranks of several overseas justices who have resigned or ended their terms since 2020, when Beijing imposed a national security law to silence political opposition. Collins citied the “political situation” in the city after he tended his resignation. 

Beverley McLachlin, who was the Supreme Court of Canada’s longest-serving chief justice, announced on Monday that she planned to retire from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal when her term ends on 29 July. Unlike the two British judges, she did not cite political reasons for her decision.

Their exits will leave the city with the fewest foreign judges since 1999, as it seeks to repair its global image that was damaged by pandemic self-isolation and political unrest. 

Hong Kong has touted its appointment of prominent overseas judges to its top court as a testament to the city’s independent judiciary since returning to Chinese rule in 1997. Critics have accused foreign judges of helping Beijing silence the city’s once-vocal political opposition, despite the fact they haven’t ruled on sensitive national security cases.

McLachlin, who joined the Hong Kong court in 2018, has faced calls from Canadian critics to step down amid criticism that her presence lends credibility to a legal system that China is using as a tool against its critics.

In a brief statement, McLachlin said she continued to have confidence in the members of the court and their independence. The Hong Kong government thanked McLachlin for her “objective appraisal” of rule of law in the once-freewheeling Chinese territory. 

Her departure in July will leave just seven overseas judges on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, less than half of the 15 who served on the court in 2019. Since Beijing imposed the national security law in 2020, at least five foreign judges have cited political reasons for stepping down.

The UK government withdrew two top judges from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal in 2022, citing the risk of “legitimising oppression”. Australian Justice James Spigelman resigned in 2020 due to concerns over the national security law. 

The Hong Kong government said the city’s national security laws and de facto constitution, the Basic Law, protect human rights and freedoms in its Tuesday statement.

But Sumption criticised the 2020 Beijing-imposed national security law as “illiberal legislation” that severely limits judges’ freedom of action. 

“There are guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly in both the Basic Law and the National Security Law, but only lip-service is ever paid to them. The least sign of dissent is treated as a call for revolution,” he said.

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