Published: 14:38, June 12, 2024
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The overly simplistic political analysis of British judge Jonathan Sumption
By Lau Siu-kai

Jonathan Sumption, a nonpermanent judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (HKCFA) from the United Kingdom, recently resigned from the relevant position in a high-profile manner. Over the past few years, since the promulgation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL), the United States and its allies have wantonly slandered Beijing and Hong Kong, especially in terms of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The HKCFA nonpermanent judges from overseas have also come under weighty pressure. Western politicians and media keep demanding that these judges resign from their posts. Otherwise, they will be “whitewashing” the “encroachment” of Hong Kong’s rule of law. Moreover, they are accused of losing the character and demeanor they should have as legal leaders and are morally reprehensible. Some overseas judges eventually gave in because they could not withstand the pressure. However, they usually not only do not make nasty remarks when resigning but also take the opportunity to express their trust and respect for Hong Kong’s rule of law and the judicial personnel.

Sumption’s behavior is entirely different. In addition to his high-profile resignation, he also wrote an article in the Financial Times to attack the Chinese government, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, the judiciary, the media and political leaders. He claimed that Hong Kong has been shrouded in an “oppressive atmosphere” and “Hong Kong, once a vibrant and politically diverse society, is slowly becoming a totalitarian state. The rule of law is profoundly compromised in any area about which the government feels strongly”. Judging from his scathing condemnation, as a former HKCFA nonpermanent judge, Sumption’s accusations against Hong Kong are pretty severe and have surprised and puzzled many people.

As a political sociologist, I lack sufficient professional knowledge and training to discuss matters related to law and justice. However, I think Sumption’s article represents, by and large, his political views on Hong Kong rather than a piece of serious work on jurisprudence, so I feel somewhat qualified to respond to his analysis.

Sumption’s slew of criticisms and accusations against Hong Kong are based on his analysis of the political changes in Hong Kong over the past few years. In fact, over the past decade or so, Hong Kong has been ravaged by continuous political struggles and turmoil. The riots in 2019-20 were some of the most violent, bloody, significant, lengthy and destructive in Hong Kong’s history. They seriously hit Hong Kong’s economy, shook the city’s stability, divided society, damaged its international reputation, and Hong Kong residents feel fearful and jittery.

Like many other Western media, politicians and scholars, Sumption does not accept this analysis of Hong Kong’s political changes. In his article, he did not mention the Hong Kong version “color revolution” and its threat to China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity

The anti-China insurrectionists in Hong Kong, who organized and planned these riots under the guise of opposing the “extradition bill amendment” and fighting for democratic reform, attempted to seize power in the HKSAR by illegal means and turn Hong Kong into an independent political entity or “an independent country”, thus  potentially making Hong Kong a subversive base for the US and its allies to contain China, thereby posing a severe threat to national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.

What is even more severe is the deep involvement of external forces, especially the US and its allies, as well as “Taiwan independence” advocates, in these riots and political machinations. These riots had the characteristics of a “color revolution” and caused a serious political crisis that Hong Kong has never experienced. Hong Kong’s original laws were undoubtedly not powerful enough to quell these riots and chaos. Therefore, the central government had to exercise its comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong and formulate, promulgate, and implement the NSL, thereby quickly quelling this Hong Kong version “color revolution” in one fell swoop.

Like many other Western media, politicians and scholars, Sumption does not accept this analysis of Hong Kong’s political changes. In his article, he did not mention the Hong Kong version “color revolution” and its threat to China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.

Instead, he tried to make people feel that Hong Kong was still in a normal and stable state for some time. Therefore, the “Legislative Council primary election activities” instigated by the anti-China insurrectionists were an example of Hong Kong’s “democratic activists” legitimately exercising their legal rights. Therefore, it was just a minor matter. By the same token, publishing the Yangcun Picture Book, singing and disseminating the song Glory to Hong Kong, and promoting a provocative candlelight vigil were legitimate exercises of freedom of expression and assembly under the law. Since there had been no serious incidents related to national security in Hong Kong, there was no need for the Chinese government to enact a national security law for Hong Kong because “the ordinary laws of Hong Kong were perfectly adequate for dealing with them”. Therefore, “the National Security Law was imposed in response to the threat of a pro-democracy majority in LegCo to crush even peaceful political dissent”. He went so far as to claim that the emergence of Hong Kong’s national security laws was not due to the complex political situation in Hong Kong and the national security threat but reflects the “paranoia of the authorities”.

Sumption’s “understatement” and “light-hearted” assessment of the political turmoil in Hong Kong in recent years is significantly different from the actual situation in Hong Kong. For most Hong Kong residents, the riots in 2019-20 are still haunting and unforgettable, and they are even more afraid of a recurrence. They understand and appreciate the stabilizing role played by Hong Kong’s national security laws and are happy and relieved that the leaders who planned and organized the riots were brought to justice, believing that Hong Kong’s rule of law has been amply demonstrated. Most Hong Kong residents will not care for or regret Sumption’s resignation. Instead, they will be dissatisfied and angry with his unreasonable attacks on and slanders against Hong Kong and his lack of empathy for its residents who were devastated by the riots. The “Sumption incident” thus gives Hong Kong residents a more precise understanding and heightened vigilance of the US and its allies’ deliberate attempts to suppress and denigrate Hong Kong. It also provides good teaching material for Hong Kong’s national security education.

The author is emeritus professor of sociology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and a consultant at the Chinese Association of Hong Kong & Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.