Published: 23:41, June 12, 2024
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Sumption’s contradictory statements cast doubt on his motives
By Dominic Lee

Recently, Hong Kong has been thrust into the international spotlight following the resignation of two British nonpermanent judges from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (HKCFA), Jonathan Sumption and Lawrence Collins. Sumption wrote an op-ed claiming that Hong Kong’s rule of law has been compromised in some areas. 

However, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu reassured the public that the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents have remained unchanged, and the courts continue to operate independently and make fair verdicts. Sumption’s sudden departure raises suspicions that external forces are using the “judges card” to tarnish Hong Kong’s judiciary and undermine its commitment to national security, a strategy that is bound to fail.

The system of appointing overseas nonpermanent judges to Hong Kong’s highest court has a long history. By bringing in seasoned judges from various legal backgrounds, this practice helps to enrich Hong Kong’s jurisprudence as well as bolstering confidence in the judiciary’s independence.

Since the National Security Law for Hong Kong was enacted in June 2020, Hong Kong has restored social order. The riots and chaos have subsided, with some agitators fleeing abroad and others facing justice in the courts. Having lost their grip on street protests, external forces have turned their sights on the judiciary and launched a campaign of smear attacks against it, and Sumption’s actions appear to be part of this broader campaign.

In 2022, the president and deputy president of the UK Supreme Court, Lord Reed and Lord Hodge, resigned from the HKCFA. At the time, Sumption publicly stated that calls for British judges to resign were politically motivated rather than related to concerns about judicial independence or the rule of law, which was interpreted by many as taking a swipe at UK politicians for pressuring British judges to withdraw from the HKCFA. Indeed, during British rule, Hong Kong had no democracy, yet the rule of law was upheld by judges who based their decisions on law and evidence. Sumption argued that democracy and the rule of law are separate issues and should not be conflated. In January 2023, Sumption attended Hong Kong’s Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year, signaling his support for the city’s legal system. His recent claim of “Hong Kong’s rule of law being damaged” contradicts his past statements, casting doubt on his true motives.

Sumption specifically criticized the prosecution of the “35+ primary election case”, which involved an attempt by Legislative Council members to force the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to accede to political demands by indiscriminately vetoing the government budget. This action, aimed at compelling the chief executive to dissolve the Legislative Council and eventually resign, clearly violated the Basic Law, constituting an abuse of power and an illegal subversion of State authority. Any misinterpretation of the original court ruling and subsequent pressure on the appellate court to interfere with judicial proceedings necessitates a response from the Hong Kong government to set the record straight.

The departures of these three judges — Sumption, Collins, and Canada’s Beverley McLachlin — each have their own contexts. Collins, upon resigning, expressed complete confidence in the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary and its personnel. McLachlin said on June 10 that, given her age (80), she would not be seeking a further appointment when her term expires on July 29. But she also reaffirmed her trust in the court members and their commitment to upholding the rule of law. The West’s persistent efforts to smear Hong Kong are not only futile but also reveal their hypocrisy and ulterior motives.

The integrity and independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system remain steadfast, despite external attempts to undermine it. The resignations of foreign judges do not alter the fundamental principles that guide Hong Kong’s courts. The city continues to uphold the rule of law, ensuring that justice is administered without interference. The resilience of Hong Kong’s legal system in the face of external pressures is a testament to its robustness and the unwavering commitment of its judicial officers to uphold the law. As the city navigates through these turbulent times, it remains a beacon of legal integrity and independence in the region.

The author is a convener at China Retold, and a member of the Legislative Council as well as the Central Committee of the New People’s Party.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.