Rule of Law

References to the Rule of Law have really snowballed in recent weeks as Hong Kong officials have sought to relaunch the economy and find new opportunities for growth in the aftermath of the damage arising from the pandemic.

At a conference organised last month to highlight relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Greater Bay Area (GBA), chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu emphasized how this aspect of Hong Kong’s business environment would greatly facilitate our role as the “super connector”. At the first meeting of a financial forum a week later under the theme “Hong Kong as a Global City: the Competitive Edge”, Lee extended the scope of the role to the whole of the world and the entire mainland.

At the same event, director of the central government’s liaison office, Zheng Yanxiong, said the superior business environment and comprehensive legal framework would continuously add robust momentum to Hong Kong’s development.

Both men were echoing similar remarks by financial secretary Paul Chan Mo-po following his visits to Europe in September and to California as representative of the SAR at the APEC meeting in October.

Chan said that financial and business leaders from the UK and France expressed confidence in Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" principle, common law, and rule of law. During the German leg of his tour, which included a meeting with Christine Lagarde of the European Central Bank, Chan emphasised the ‘One Country, Two Systems‘ formula, use of the common law, and the rule of law as key features of the business environment. It was a similar story with Chan’s meetings with American business leaders. Everyone wants to know whether the formula still applies in Hong Kong, hence whether the rule of law endures.

If required, Chan could point to president Xi Jinping’s speech during his July visit to Hong Kong last year which emphasised that the differences between our city and mainland ones are what makes us so useful for the country’s overall development. Hence these differences would be preserved on a long-term basis. Xi twice mentioned continued use of common law specifically.

None of this is entirely new of course. Following the establishment of InvestHK in July 2000, I spent eight years crisscrossing the globe to spell out the four features that made Hong Kong China’s natural international financial centre: free movement of capital; private ownership of the banking system so the government could focus on orderly regulation; free flow of information; and a common law legal system administered by an independent judiciary. The last one was the most important as it applied to all business sectors.

Rule of law is a general term which embraces an open system, an independent judiciary, a level playing field, transparency, speedy trial and a requirement that the administration exercise its powers in a fair way.

The other person to mention rule of law recently was Emily Lau Wai-hing, former head of the Democratic Party. Lau was guest speaker at a lunch organised by Path of Democracy, a local think tank headed by executive councillor Ronny Tong Ka-wah. Lau said she was often asked by foreign business people whether the one country two systems formula still applied, which she took as code for whether rule of law prevailed.

The Democratic Party is regarded by many as the odd man out among those affiliated with the pan democratic camp. For one thing the party’s constitution has a clause which mirrors Article 1 of the Basic Law, viz ruling out any question of independence as it accepts that our city is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China. It advocates that any political change should be orderly and achieved without violence, a firm believer in the rule of law. Other parties in the camp criticise it for being insufficiently militant.

Some members of the party did take part in the high-profile 2019 primary exercise to select candidates for the upcoming legislative council elections. But unlike some other participants they did not sign the online declaration titled “Resolute Resistance, Inked Without Regret”.

As the significance of that petition is now subject of a criminal court case brought under national security legislation, it would not be right to comment further. Suffice to say that the Democratic Party members did not sign.

Which brings us to the annual Lunar New Year fair where allocation of market stalls is by public auction, the winner being the individual or organisation that offers the most money. Two members of the Democratic Party, in their own names not on behalf of the organisation, bid for two stalls. Each was the highest bidder but neither was permitted to sign the contract. No reason was offered, just attention drawn to a clause in the auction procedure document which allowed the government not to award the stall to the highest bidder. This is unsettling. It suggests there are some circumstances where the playing field is not level, and there is no need for the government to be transparent.

Now it might be argued that this is a trivial matter. Who cares who secures the right to sell flowers or knickknacks at a local fair. Perhaps those making the decision were proceeding out of an abundance of caution. But they need to know that news of such instances travels around the world, and inevitably comes to the attention of potential investors in Hong Kong. Do you think they might raise a small doubt about our adherence to the rule of law? At the very least it makes us look petty and big people do not do small things.

Some in Hong Kong are concerned about “soft resistance”. Some overseas are more concerned with “soft oppression”. There are enemies of China who look for reasons to attack our city as part of their efforts to undermine the country. Why do we insist on giving them ammunition?