Adding more to Hong Kong’s worries, Beijing’s national security legislation for the city is set to block its foreign judges from handling national security trials, which would exacerbate concerns about the city’s judicial independence, people familiar with the matter said.
Having lost patience with Hong Kong’s failure to adopt national security legislation on its own, China announced on Thursday that it would directly enact laws to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the city.
The legislation, which remains subject to change, would also see both central and city government security agencies set up in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government has said the legislation would not affect its judicial independence.
Beijing’s push for the legislation follows months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year, fuelled by fears among many in the city of the erosion by Beijing of its autonomy under a “one country, two systems” system set up when it was handed from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
China blames the protests on anti-China “troublemakers”, aided at times by unspecified foreign and external forces.
It has not said when the legislation would be completed, but sources and delegates to China’s Parliament said it was likely to be enacted before Hong Kong legislative elections in September.
Hong Kong’s foreign judges stem from an arrangement established at its 1997 handover to help maintain its credibility as an international financial hub.
Its highest court, the Court of Final Appeal, has 23 judges, of whom 15 are foreign, from places like Britain, Canada and Australia. All serve as non-permanent members of the court, which means they are called on periodically to sit on cases.
While under the new law they would no longer be able to handle national security cases, they will not be excluded from civil, financial or other cases.
However, any move to limit the role of foreign judges is likely to alarm some Hong Kong lawyers and judges, who already fear that the city’s vaunted judicial independence is under threat from Beijing’s Communist Party leadership.
The Hong Kong Bar Association said China’s plan to impose the law without public consultation or local legislative scrutiny had caused “deep unease in the local and international community”.