China’s chief justice has told Hong Kong’s top judge he is being counted on to fully implement the national security law and help ensure only patriots govern the city during the two men’s first meeting in Beijing.
Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People’s Court of China, delivered the message to Chief Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung on Tuesday during the latter’s first capital visit since assuming his new role, the top court’s website and social media account said.
“[We] hope Cheung Kui-nung is able to lead the judiciary, to be responsible and dutiful, with a spirit of high accountability to the country and Hong Kong, and to fully implement the law, the Basic Law, the national security law and the principle of patriots governing Hong Kong,” Zhou said.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
“Do not fail the trust and heavy responsibility granted by the central authorities, and exercise [the court’s] function to uphold national sovereignty, security and … the long-term prosperity of Hong Kong.”
He also urged the judiciary to deepen exchanges with its mainland counterparts to “strengthen judicial officers’ consciousness for the country and concepts of the nation”.
The remarks sparked concern among senior members of the city’s legal community, who noted there had been a break with convention and feared Beijing was putting pressure on the local judiciary.
“Previously, such an occasion would be greeted with niceties by both sides,” said one senior barrister, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue.
But he said the “patronising and condescending” way in which the mainland judiciary lectured its Hong Kong counterpart had not been seen before.
But pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a barrister by profession, said the mainland’s top court was entitled to share its observations and it should not be seen as a way to put pressure on the city’s judiciary.
“A mere expression of opinion is not going to affect the judiciary,” she said, while also praising Cheung’s answer.
Cheung was quoted as thanking the Chinese supreme court for its support, and said he looked forward to exchanges with mainland courts regarding their professional and technological developments.
The meeting marked the first time China’s top judge has referenced the principle of patriots governing Hong Kong, a requirement that has been gaining currency since President Xi Jinping in January called it a fundamental concept in ensuring stability.
Two months later, China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, endorsed a radical shake-up of Hong Kong’s political system to better align it with that principle.
Zhou’s remarks stood in sharp contrast with what he told Cheung’s predecessor, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, during a 2016 meeting in Beijing. At that sit-down, Zhou underscored the role Hong Kong courts had played in implementing the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, and the principle of “one country, two systems”.
But on Tuesday, Zhou told Cheung that Hong Kong now found itself at a critical juncture, changing from chaos to order, according to the supreme court’s Weibo account.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the semi-official Beijing think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said it was not surprising Zhou touched on patriotism in the meeting, given such concepts had already been mentioned in a white paper issued by the State Council in 2014.
“Asking them to be patriotic is not asking them not to act in accordance with the law … Judges are humans, they can have political views, but they should not do anything that goes against the nation’s interest,” he argued.
Civic Party chairman Alan Leong Kah-kit, a senior counsel, said being the top judge now meant Cheung would be subject to pressure from all sides. “It’s really how [he] reacts to these pressures that will define [his] office and legacy,” he said.
Simon Young Ngai-man, associate dean of the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty, urged people not to read too much into the remarks and assume they contained a veiled threat.
“If I was to translate simply what Zhou has said, it is nothing much more than conveying to the new chief justice of Hong Kong: ‘Be true to your judicial oath. We’re counting on you’,” he said.
During the four-day visit, which began on Tuesday, Cheung will also visit the top court’s Intellectual Property Court and the Beijing Internet Court, and attend discussions on technology advancements and judicial exchanges.
Courtesy calls to the NPC Standing Committee’s General Office, the Legislative Affairs Commission and the Basic Law Committee are also scheduled as well as visits to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Ministry of Justice and the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO).
Xia Baolong, head of the HKMAO, in February said the principle of patriots governing Hong Kong should be imposed on all three branches of government: the executive, legislature and judiciary.
High Court Chief Judge Jeremy Poon Shiu-chor, Court of Appeal Justice Carlye Chu Fun-ling and Judiciary Administrator Esther Leung Yuet-yin are accompanying the chief justice during the four-day tour.
Additional reporting by Tony Cheung