As one of his first acts after taking office, President-elect Joe Biden plans to convene a summit of democracies. The aim is to advance individual rights and equality in both democracies and countries with few civic freedoms. His plan seems pointed at China, where people’s rights are subordinate to the rule of leader Xi Jinping. One guest Mr. Biden might want to invite is Justice Anderson Chow, of the High Court in Hong Kong.
On Thursday, Justice Chow ruled that the government in the Chinese territory had violated Hong Kong’s bill of rights. During massive pro-democracy protests last year, he said, it failed to have police wear ID badges and to provide an independent review of police abuses. No matter how serious the public emergency, Justice Chow wrote, basic rights “must still be respected by the government and protected by the courts.”
The ruling is a brave stand for what’s left of democracy in Hong Kong – its independent judiciary – 23 years after Britain handed the colony back to Beijing. Pro-democracy legislators have been sidelined, much of the free press has been muzzled, and many protesters have fled for fear of arrest. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam even said in September there is no separation of powers in the government.
Ms. Lam’s remark has stiffened the backbone of the court judges. In a rebuke, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li warned in a statement that the judiciary must not be politicized. While Mr. Xi has said rule of law means “the law of governing by the Communist Party,” the city’s judges see themselves – as independent law professionals working under a constitution centered on equality of all citizens – as having the power to interpret the law and to be a check on state authority without fear or favor to a party.
The two views are just what Mr. Biden’s democracy summit needs to address as he takes up the task of dealing with China’s promotion of its model of unitary – and arbitrary – governance.
“I will put values back at the center of our foreign policy, including how we approach the U.S.-China relationship,” Mr. Biden said in August. He also promises to “fully enforce” the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act signed by President Donald Trump last year.
China today is no longer the China of Deng Xiaoping, the leader after the anti-law Mao era . Deng said in 1978 that “democracy has to be institutionalized and written into law, so as to make sure that institutions and laws do not change whenever the leadership changes.”
The people of Hong Kong, who have shown the world how much they love freedom, deserve a seat at any global forum on democracy. They know firsthand how much equal rights and democratic rule of law – rather than the whims of personal rule – contribute to a flourishing society.