Bar fight juiced up by co-location issue

Editorial | Mary Ma Jan 5, 2018
It was supposed to be just another regular election of the Hong Kong Bar Association that would draw little public attention. But not this time.

The association's exercise to elect a new leadership has attracted an unprecedented amount of attention from the public, even though the latter is as far as can be from probably the SAR's most prestigious body of elites.

It's all thanks to the heated debate over Beijing's decision to advance the China-SAR border checkpoint to West Kowloon, the local terminus for the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.

I see nothing wrong with association chairman Paul Lam Ting-kwok leading the professional body to question the legal basis for the decision. By all means, that's only the association's opinion forming part of the debate.

Will Lam's critical comment change the course of events and delay the express rail services? It's highly unlikely.

Rather, I'm concerned about the scathing attacks that the pro-Beijing camp has mounted against him since. Wouldn't the situation be of even greater concern if the barristers had chosen not to point out what, in their view, was wrong?

It's about freedom of expression, and it would be mischievous of one to condemn the top barrister - or others in the group - for merely exercising the freedom that allows them to say what they think.

It would be important to keep the debate open and healthy without fear.

Lam is hardly a controversial figure - at least not before he led the professional body to dispute the legality of the decision handed down by the National People's Congress standing committee. Nonetheless, the controversy may cost him the leadership among his peers.

Lam is seeking re-election to the council that governs the association. While his challenger, human rights expert Philip Dykes, has never been ambiguous about his pro-democracy leanings, and is running along with heavyweights like criminal-law specialist Lawrence Lok Ying-kam and constitutional-law scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun, Lam has conservative icons like former association chairwoman Winnie Tam Wan-chi and Ronny Tong Ka-wah rallying around him.

Tong, a former pan-democratic lawmaker and now an Executive Council member, insists there is nothing legally wrong with the NPCSC's decision, and said he felt upset by Lam's criticism of the move.

Like any other group, the association is never homogeneous, and Lam and Dykes are representatives of the rival camps.

If Lam thinks his critical statement of Beijing's decision will help him win over some of Dykes' votes, it would be a very obvious mistake to make. Rather, his supporters - like Tong - would disagree with his querying the legality of the decision. Meanwhile, some association members may simply not vote on January 18.

To make things worse, Lam subsequently tried to backtrack on his criticism, saying it would be all right if Beijing declares there won't be a second time. If he considers the first decision illegal, he should stand by his conviction. If he thought it's lawful, he should have said so in the first place.

In law, there's no such thing as ambiguity.

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January 2019