Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Not-So-Honorable Exit

By Chip Tsao | published Sep 24, 2009

Earlier this month, Andrew Li Kwok-nang announced his resignation from the post of Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal. This was dynamite news for Hong Kongers who still believe in British-style judiciary independence as essential for upholding the so-called “one country, two systems” and “high degree of autonomy” principles of the Basic Law. Yet Li wasn’t sticking around that hot kitchen. No surprise. As Hong Kong has been under heavy political influence from the motherland, Li must have felt the heat after he was reprimanded by Chinese officials over a few cases—for example, the right of abode case among mainland-born children in Hong Kong who have a local parent—and even had his ruling scrapped, with Beijing eventually stepping out to “interpret” the true meaning of the Basic Law, like a primary school teacher lecturing her pupils about the right procedures for washing their hands. To be fair, it has not been impossible so far to maintain an independent judiciary since the 1997 handover. It can still be done—it’s a little like finding sex in prison; you can get it, but it’s a bit rough and may not be in the style you most prefer.

So Li has decided to seek a dignified exit. Asked whether he was planning to run for the job of Chief Executive, a visibly irritated Li launched into desperate denials, describing such speculations as “absolute nonsense.” The poor guy must have felt insulted. The post of Chief Justice constitutionally ranks second to the Chief Executive. Its image, with the black robe and the grey coiffure, is still reminiscent of the noble professionalism of the good old colonial days, and has not been tainted in the past 12 months. The Chief Justice has been humiliated by China, but he has not been reduced to a joke yet. What an insult to assume that Li, a local blue blood whose spoken English is occasionally reminiscent of James Mason in a black-and-white Ealing Studio movie from the 1930s, should run together with characters like C.Y. Leung and Henry Tang for this most un-coveted job in town?

But did he have to deny it in such a dramatic fashion, his face blushed, nearly clenching his fists in front of the camera? A Cambridge-trained elite, Li should demonstrate a better example of majestic composure. Would Winston Churchill, upon losing his election after the war, have shouted, “It’s absolute nonsense!” had he been asked by a Sun reporter to confirm whether he was to accept the post of Police Commissioner in Kenya? Or what if Chris Patten were asked to confirm his next post as curator of the London Zoo after leaving Hong Kong? The answer would most likely have been a fit of laughter. When Marrie Antoinette was on trial during the French Revolution, she was accused by the revolutionaries of assisting the young dauphin during masturbation. She was angered by the charge, which was clearly designed to demonize her. She sat upright in her seat, looking proud and undaunted. The moment of silence was broken as the brave mother stood up, looked around and said, “I refuse to answer such a question. I appeal to all mothers under the roof of this court.” For a man like him seeking an honorable exit, Li’s “absolute nonsense” quote was a waste of a perfectly good historical record opportunity.

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