Beijing has offered a carrot and stick to Hong Kong’s Law Society, which will elect its new leaders next week, by urging them to continue to contribute to Hong Kong’s stability while luring them with new business opportunities on the mainland.
At the same time, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday the government could cut ties with the Law Society if the solicitor group “put politics above professionalism.”
The warning was made ahead of the August 24 election for five seats on the Law Society’s council. If the so-called “liberal camp” wins four more seats, it will control more than 11 out of the 20 seats and replace the current pro-government president with its choice.
Meanwhile, pro-Beijing newspaper Sing Tao Daily reported Tuesday that Paul Harris, the incumbent chairman of Hong Kong’s Bar Association (HKBA) and a human rights lawyer, would not seek another term after finishing his first one-year term in January 2022.
The Law Society and HKBA represent Hong Kong’s 13,000 solicitors and 1,500 barristers, respectively. When the Hong Kong government pushed forward the national security legislation related to the Basic Law’s Article 23 in 2003, both organizations raised concerns about whether it would undermine the city’s rule of law and freedoms of speech and media.
In early June 2019, HKBA, led by the then-chairman Philip Dykes, challenged the Extradition Law bill proposed by the government while the Law Society called for public consultation on the matter. Their suggestions were followed by seven months of social unrest in the city until the government banned protests in January 2020 citing anti-epidemic reasons.
In May 2020, HKBA said in a statement that Beijing did not have the power to put the National Security Law into Annex III of the Basic Law as there was no assurance that the new law would comply with provisions of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
When Harris became the new leader of the HKBA in January this year, he described the National Security Law as a “disgrace” and “disgusting.”
The state-run People’s Daily slammed Harris for “losing basic legal profession and rational (sic)” with his speech against the National Security Law. It also claimed the HKBA had supported violent protesters and challenged the bottom line of the “one country, two systems” principle over the past few years.
Last Saturday, the People’s Daily said in an article that the Law Society should not to follow the footsteps of the HKBA, which had lost the chance to communicate and cooperate with the mainland in the past few years and become a “street rat” in Hong Kong.
It said the Law Society had an important role in safeguarding Hong Kong’s rule of law and should maintain its professional status and continue to contribute to the stability of the city. It said the Law Society was not seen as a political group as it had criticized violence by protesters during the extradition law saga.
It said if the Law Society continued to stay away from those who oppose China and disrupt Hong Kong, it would not walk on the same path of the Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU), which had to disband after losing the Hong Kong government’s recognition.
On August 10, the 48-year-old PTU announced that it was disbanding after the People’s Daily said on July 31 that the PTU stood against education and professionalism and had been encouraging anti-China activities that hurt Hong Kong. Echoing the state media’s comments, Hong Kong’s Education Bureau said it would stop working with the PTU.
“In future, if other professional groups, including the Law Society, put politics above their legal profession, the SAR government will also consider cutting ties with it,” Lam said Tuesday.
She noted that the Law Society is empowered to recommend members for bodies like the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission and the government often consults it over important legal matters.
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng said in her blog on Tuesday that legal professionals should use their expertise to uphold the rule of law, promote legal services and maintain professionalism as expected by the legal industry and the community. Cheng said legal bodies should not be politicized.
She also said that during her visit to Beijing in July she had signed four arrangements fostering legal exchanges between the two places and further promoting legal, dispute resolution and deal-making services.
“In order to seize the opportunities and benefit from these measures, the legal sector has to move in the right direction whilst reinforcing its strength,” she said. “We should also continue to discharge our functions as a lawyer in a professional and objective manner, contributing to the rule of law in Hong Kong and the Motherland.”
Whether the government cuts its tie with the Law Society depends on the result of the election in which 11 candidates will compete for five seats. Of these, five candidates come from the pro-establishment camp while four are seen as “liberals.” The remaining two reportedly have no political preference.
Among the “liberals,” Selma Masood has recently been criticized by pro-Beijing newspapers for having supported anti-extradition protesters and allegedly smearing Hong Kong police when she was interviewed by the United States’ Norfolk Daily News in December 2019.
Selma Masood said in a statement that she pledged to be politically neutral if she was elected. She said the Law Society was not and should not be a political organization. She added that matters to be discussed should be within the parameters of the legal arena.