In a speech last year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping reminded his country that rule of law really means “the law of governing by the Communist Party.” In courts across the mainland, the Marxist party often wields the law merely as a tool to cling to power. That is not the case in Hong Kong, a small piece of China that inherited the common law system from the time it was a British colony. There judicial independence remains one of its most-cherished assets, ensuring equality before the law.
Britain returned Hong Kong 22 years ago on the condition that it could keep its form of government under a “one country, two systems” arrangement until 2047. But with Mr. Xi’s rise to power in 2012, the party has steadily flexed its muscle in the territory, putting the courts there under increasing strain. Nonetheless, Hong Kong still ranks 16th in a global index of rule of law by the World Justice Project. In contrast, China ranks 75th.
The latest challenge to Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy comes in the form of a proposal by its government to amend the extradition law. The change would allow fugitives wanted by China to be sent to the mainland on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is handpicked by Beijing. Although the courts will review the arrest warrant, critics say Beijing could easily misuse it for political purposes.
One of the strongest criticisms comes from the well-respected chairman of Hong Kong’s Bar Association, Philip Dykes. He said the measure requires “anxious scrutiny.” In a column, he notes that though the territory has entered into fugitive surrender agreements with at least 19 countries, it may not have done so with China because of “perceived inadequacies” in the mainland’s criminal justice system.
If the proposal is approved, Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe place for business people and travelers to enjoy high standards of justice could be jeopardized. Liberty has been the lifeblood of this city of 7 million people, from avoiding the worst of the upheavals that embroiled China to enjoying an uncensored internet today.
The people of Hong Kong have a history of pushing back on Beijing’s attempt to curtail their freedoms. In 2003, for example, some 500,000 people took to the streets to protest a government-sponsored security bill, whose vague wordings stoked fears that it would be used to suppress dissent. The bill was later shelved.
In 2014, when China essentially denied universal suffrage in Hong Kong and called for its judges to be “patriotic” – a term used to mean loyal to the Communist Party – students led a monthslong protest known as the Umbrella Movement. Two years later, as many as 2,000 lawyers marched to protest Beijing’s interference in the ouster of two newly elected legislators who had expressed support for an independent Hong Kong.
The courts, of course, play a crucial role. Judges “are aware that faith in the judiciary once lost, can never be regained,” said retired judge Robert Tang in a well-received farewell speech last December.
The resistance to the extradition proposal is a key test of how far the Chinese Communist Party will go to squelch the universal value of rule of law. When a society embraces the idea that certain principles must remain above politics, it flourishes. The rest of the world can only admire – and support – what the people in Hong Kong are demanding.