Hong Kong’s judicial system should reflect the will and interests of the Chinese nation, a senior official overseeing the national security law has said.
The comments have been interpreted as a clear instruction from Beijing that Hong Kong’s once-vaunted court system is now expected to operate in the interests of the central government in Beijing, rather than the rule of law.
In an interview with a pro-Beijing magazine, Zheng Yanxiong, the director of the Office for Safeguarding National Security, said the rule of law was an “important tool” in Hong Kong, and a “source of [its] charm”, but that the independent power of the judiciary was authorised by the National People’s Congress.
In the interview with East Week, he said the judiciary “must highly manifest the national will and national interest, or else it will lose the legal premise of the authorisation … It will be the biggest loophole in the rule of law if national security is not safeguarded.”
Zheng was appointed to his position last year overseeing the implementation of the national security law, which he said was fundamental to stability.
“Once national security falls, the city will then be dominated by ideas of independence, mutual destruction and self-determination,” he said.
Some observers saw the comments as a warning to the judiciary to uphold the political interests of the central government or risk losing its independence.
Schona Jolly QC, the chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, said Zheng’s comments were “a chilling warning to anyone whose actions could be perceived as dissent, including the judiciary itself”, and revealed how Beijing viewed the national security law as “a tool to breach the firewall created by the Basic Law between Hong Kong’s common law system and the mainland”.
“The NSL, with its ill-defined and sweeping definitions, threatens fundamental rights at the core of Hong Kong’s legal system and bleeds away the division between the mainland and the robust legal system of which Hong Kong’s lawyers and judges are proud.”
In his daily analysis newsletter, Sinocism, the China analyst Bill Bishop said the comments were not a hint or a signal, and were instead “a statement of what is going to happen”.
“Why would the relationship between the party-state and the judiciary in Hong Kong be any different than the relationship between the party-state and the judiciary in the rest of the PRC?” he said.
Foreign governments and human rights and legal groups have accused authorities of using the law as a weapon against dissent, targeting political opposition, the free press, and the judiciary. At least two foreign judges have left Hong Kong benches, citing the national security law. Politicians, journalists and activists have been arrested and fear of legal action has forced the Apple Daily newspaper to shut and the online outlet Stand News to remove all opinion content.
On Tuesday, the law was also cited in the departure of two journalists from the public broadcaster RTHK.
The veteran journalist Steve Vines, who also hosts the Pulse TV programme, announced at the end of the Backchat radio show on Wednesday that he felt he had “better go”.
“It seems to me that for somebody who is more critical, the time to remain at RTHK has ended,” he said, after a discussion about the national security law.
On Tuesday, the former RTHK presenter Allan Au, who was sacked from his radio hosting duties on Monday, accused the broadcaster’s management of purging critical voices. Last week, the radio presenter Tsang Chi-ho said he had been sacked without notice. RTHK, a government-funded but historically independent broadcaster, has been under sustained government pressure and subjected to wholesale changes in recent months, controlling its journalism.