Pressure is mounting on the Hong Kong Bar Association’s governing council to decide whether Paul Harris SC should remain as chairman after it emerged he is a member of the British Liberal Democrats.
Prominent barristers in the pro-establishment camp claim Harris, an experienced human rights lawyer, has damaged the credibility of the professional body that represents more than 1,500 barristers and senior counsels.
They argue he should have at least declared his political affiliation before his election last month, although leaders of the opposition camp have defended Harris, saying he has been caught in the tug of war between the association and Beijing over how “rule of law” operates in Hong Kong.
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I will not be playing any part in British politics while I am Bar chairman
His membership of the Liberal Democrats is also being viewed by some as problematic given the soured relationship between the government and Britain over London’s creation of a new pathway to citizenship for millions of Hongkongers eligible for British National (Overseas) status due to concerns over the national security law. Hong Kong announced last month the passports could no longer be used for travel and last week said banks would no longer accept them as identification.
Harris, who was called to the Bar in 1993 and became a senior counsel in 2006, noted that under association rules chairmen were free to belong to a political party and were not required to disclose the affiliation.
“I will not be playing any part in British politics while I am Bar chairman, [and] I am not a member of any Hong Kong political party,” he told the Post on Wednesday.
Since winning the uncontested election last month, Harris has attracted criticism from Beijing’s representatives over his views on the national security law. He said he would explore the possibility of “getting the Hong Kong government to agree to some modifications” to the security law, which was imposed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body, last June. Harris suggested some provisions were at odds with rights guaranteed under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
But Beijing’s two top agencies overseeing Hong Kong affairs lashed out at him, saying the standing committee had the “unquestionable and sacred power” to enact laws in Hong Kong.
Earlier this week, members of the pro-establishment camp asked Harris to resign after British media reported he was a Liberal Democrat and had only stepped down as an elected councillor of the Oxford City Council before his election.
Harris told the Post he had “been a member of … the Liberal Democrats, for most of my adult life”, but did not say whether he would quit the party to avoid any potential conflict of interest.
Former Bar Association chairman Ronny Tong Ka-wah, who advises the city leader as a member of her de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, said he was disappointed with Harris’ stance.
“It is not just about resigning from a job,” he said. “It is his membership of a British political party that is problematic. As far as I can remember, we have never had a serving chairman affiliated with a political party … and when Hong Kong’s relationship with Britain is now so bad, how can you perform your function properly?”
But this is not the first time an association chairman has come under fire for ties with a political organisation. In 2008, then association chairman Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, who was the city’s justice secretary from 2012 to 2018, announced he had agreed to serve as a delegate to the Guangdong Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the provincial government’s top advisory body.
Tong, then an opposition lawmaker of the Civic Party, at the time joined his party colleagues in calling on Yuen to choose between the two roles.
“Yuen stayed on because members of the Bar Council supported him, believing that the post could help the profession in tapping into mainland Chinese opportunities … but some current members did not even know about the political affiliation of Harris,” he said.
Tong denied claims by his former Civic Party colleagues he was holding the two men to different standards, and insisted it was the opposition politicians who were being less critical of Harris than they were previously of Yuen.
“I would just appeal to Harris’ conscience,” Tong said. “If he believes that it would help the Bar, he should resign.”
Some of Harris’ backers also pointed out that some heads of large China-based institutions were foreigners with overseas political affiliations. At the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for instance, Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat, serves as a vice-president.
But Tong argued the two types of bodies could not be compared, noting the Bar Association listed “the maintenance of the honour and independence of the bar” as a critical mission.
Barrister and pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, who advises Beijing on issues related to the city’s mini-constitution on the Basic Law Committee, also urged the Bar Council to consider whether Harris should stay on, arguing the association’s credibility had been undermined.
As long as the association’s relationship with Beijing remained tense, young barristers would suffer, she argued.
“Under Harris’ predecessor Philip Dykes, the council was actually quite proactive in improving young barristers’ welfare and helping them to embrace opportunities in mainland China,” she said.
Leung called on the association to make it clear in the future that no member of the council, which is the governing core of the Bar Association, should have any political affiliation, whether it was with a pro-Beijing or opposition group. They should also declare any political affiliation and all public posts they hold locally or overseas when they run for the council, she added.
However, speaking on condition of anonymity, a council member said the body supported Harris, although some were more overt in their backing than others.
They believed that the attacks were “baseless and unjustified” as no rules barred a candidate for the chairman post from holding political affiliations or official foreign posts. The rules only required candidates to be registered in Hong Kong as a barrister and have practised for more than 10 years.
As soon as the association speaks up on the ... Basic Law … the leaders in Beijing take it as an affront to their authority
Alan Leong, Civic Party chairman
The member also questioned why Harris should step down when Yuen had been allowed to stay on.
Civic Party chairman Alan Leong Kah-kit, who served as association chairman after Tong from 2001 to 2003, said conflicts between the association and Beijing would be inevitable as long as their understanding of the rule of law differed.
“While we use the law to keep public power under check and protect human rights and freedoms … that system on the mainland was meant to ensure that policies promulgated by the Communist Party must be implemented without hiccups,” he said. “So as soon as the association speaks up on the promises and guarantees under the Basic Law … the leaders in Beijing take it as an affront to their authority and a challenge to their political power. This is most unfortunate.”
Leong noted many members of Britain’s legal guilds were members of major parties.
Additional reporting by Chris Lau
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