Published: 23:58, February 22, 2021 | Updated: 00:56, June 5, 2023
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Harris should resign for the Bar Association's sake
By Junius Ho and Kacee Ting Wong

Hong Kong Bar Association Chairman Paul Harris’ recent advocacy for an amendment of the National Security Law (NSL) and the controversy surrounding his political affiliation have compromised the credibility of the Bar. Like the Bar, Harris also suffered serious reputational shocks. In the past few weeks, public perception of Harris has undergone an adverse metamorphosis. In particular, the “Streisand Effect” brought about by Harris’ attempt to hide his political affiliation has not only compromised his credibility but also his integrity.

Firstly, we do not think there is a need to amend the NSL. In HKSAR v Lai Chee Ying (FAAC1/2021), the Court of Final Appeal makes it clear that the legislative acts of the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee (NPCSC) leading to the promulgation of the NSL as a law of the HKSAR, done in accordance with the provisions of the Basic Law and the procedure therein, are not subject to review on the basis of any alleged incompatibility as between the NSL and the Basic Law, or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as applied in Hong Kong. In essence, the judgment dismisses the allegation by Harris that some provisions of the NSL are incompatible with the Basic Law. Besides, making amendments less than a year after its promulgation may affect the authority of the NPCSC and the NSL.

The successful implementation of a stringent national security law in Singapore has done no harm to its status as an international financial center. From the perspective of many foreign investors, the draconian Internal Security Act, which allows the arrest and detention of suspects without trial, does not carry the bad name of undermining the rule of law in Singapore. It is a good lesson for Hong Kong to learn. To maintain our financial status quo, we should put out the accusatory flames arising from the alleged mismatch between the NSL and the rule of law. Keeping Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center can strengthen the argument that the NSL has not threatened the rule of law. 

It is difficult, in the climate of today’s Singapore, to imagine the security threats faced by Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s. It seems that most Singaporeans have paid adequate attention to these security threats. Without a proper understanding and assessment of these security threats, critics tend to view the ISA through a thick fog of human rights rhetoric propagated by Western powers.

Unlike Singapore, China faces more complicated national security threats. President Xi Jinping defines national security in very broad terms to encompass national sovereignty, security and developmental interests. The strained Sino-US relationship has added new complexity to the national security issue. Lawrence Ma correctly put that these threats have unfortunately been delegated to the margins of public discourse in Hong Kong (Hong Kong Basic Law: Principles and Controversies, p. 155-222). As the NPCSC has pointed out, since the onset of the legislative amendment turmoil in June 2019, anti-China forces seeking to disrupt Hong Kong have blatantly advocated such notions as Hong Kong independence and self-determination. These legitimate national security concerns require our urgent attention.

In question is whether Hongkongers have a proper understanding of the national security threats faced by China and whether they are willing to adopt a more accommodative attitude toward Beijing’s conception of national security. Some scholars opine that the accommodative approach has beaten a populist drum in Hong Kong. For example, Cora Chan and Fiona de Londras have suggested that the rising economic stature of China is an incentive for many in Hong Kong to forgo liberal values (China’s National Security: Endangering Hong Kong’s Rule of Law?, p.13). There is no suggestion that we should rely on rice-bag converts in Hong Kong to support the NSL. What matters most is the need to patiently convince Hongkongers that they have a duty to understand China’s national security concerns. They also have a sacred duty to defend their motherland.

Turning to the controversy surrounding Harris’ political affiliation, the authors are of the opinion that he should resign his position as the chairman of the Bar. It comes as a great surprise and a source of grave concern to Hongkongers to learn that Harris belongs to the Liberal Democrats party of Britain and he also served as a councilor in Oxford city until his recent resignation. Harris’ decision to hide such information has attracted a firestorm of criticism from major figures in the pro-establishment camp. Though there are no rules against such foreign political affiliation for the chairman of the Bar, Harris must be sensitive to the soured relationship between China and Britain. To make matters worse, his advocacy for amending the NSL was strongly criticized by an editorial in Ta Kung Pao, which accused him of having a political mission to fulfill. Finally, the anger of the pro-establishment camp over Harris’ separatist stance on Tibet is not going to evaporate.

If the Bar allows Harris to retain his post, it will cast its reputation into a deep morass from which escape may be long and painful. The Bar was registered under the Societies Ordinance, which was enacted by the colonial government to regulate unincorporated voluntary associations and to outlaw triad societies in Hong Kong. It is worth noting that under section 8 of the Societies Ordinance, the secretary for security has the power to prohibit the operation of organizations that have endangered national security or public safety. It serves as a wake-up call for the Bar. The future of the Bar will be under a dark cloud if it fails to keep away from controversial national security issues.

Junius Ho is a Legislative Council member and a solicitor.

Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister and a part-time researcher of the Shenzhen University Hong Kong and Macao Basic Law Research Center.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.