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Understanding history in this time of transition

Hong Kong, 24 March 2021: Modern Hong Kong may be undergoing significant political, societal and legislative changes, but evidence of this city’s fascinating history is all around us. We have 126 so-called declared monuments, a collection of old buildings, archaeological relics and historic sites protected by the Antiquities and Monuments Office.

Government House (completed in 1855), the official residence of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, is one; the iconic Kowloon-Canton Railway Clock Tower (1915) which overlooks Victoria Harbour is another; similarly, the former Marine Police Headquarters (1884) is also preserved, transformed into a shopping and dining hub where you can enjoy drinks in the jail cells that once held pirates and smugglers.

Conservation policy came under scrutiny recently when the government opted to demolish a striking century-old underground reservoir in Shek Kip Mei. The decision was reversed following a public outcry – contrite officials cited “miscommunication” between staff and waterworks engineers – and the reservoir, with its imposing stone columns and brick arches, is now designated a grade one historic site.

The exterior of the Old Supreme Court Building (1912), with its signature dome and blindfolded statue of Justice, personified in the form of the Greek goddess Themis, is also protected. While the grand old landmark itself is not under threat, there are those who believe the Court of Final Appeal it houses and, by extension, our independent Judiciary, certainly are. Politicians in the UK are ramping up pressure on the nation’s top jurists to quit serving as non-permanent judges here following Beijing’s imposition of the national security law and impending electoral reform.

The Right Honourable Lord Jonathan Sumption, one of 14 overseas non-permanent judges in the Court of Final Appeal, last week launched an impassioned defence of his position. “Our most important legacy to Hong Kong was not democracy but an impressive legal system,” he wrote in The Times. “As a Hong Kong judge I serve the people of Hong Kong. I must be guided by their interests, and not by the wishes of UK politicians. I intend to continue on the court.”

Our Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng was quick to support him, pointing out that neither the Hong Kong government nor Beijing had done anything to interfere with judicial independence. One of the Court of Final Appeal’s four local non-permanent judges, the Honourable Mr Justice Kemal Bokhary, insisted he had no plans to step down and added: “You may have guessed that I do not think anybody else should do so either.”

I agree. The participation of overseas judges in our legal system, an arrangement enshrined in the Basic Law, further demonstrates and safeguards our judicial independence. Likewise, our justice system benefits from the presence of experienced overseas counsel, no matter whether they are accepting instructions on behalf of the prosecution or defence.

Mr Justice Bokhary made his comments to reporters after receiving his Covid-19 jab at a community vaccination centre on Sunday. However, Hong Kong’s vaccination roll-out hit a major bump in the road this morning with the city-wide suspension of German-made BioNTech jabs “until further notice” after a batch was found with packaging defects. Vaccinations with mainland-produced Sinovac jabs are continuing. Against this background, Hong Kong recorded 12 new Covid-19 infections yesterday, pushing the tally to 11,409 with 204 related fatalities.

In any event, the vaccination programme has generated a lukewarm response, with only some 400,000 citizens – roughly 5.4% of the population – receiving their first dose thus far. Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip, who is overseeing the operation, revealed yesterday it was running at only half capacity. His team are now looking at lowering the age threshold from 30 to 16.

Ineffective public health messaging and fears over vaccine side effects are two of the reasons for apathy, but the real problem is this government lacks an end game. For many, the biggest incentive to get vaccinated is the prospect of open borders and quarantine-free travel, yet our leaders appear slow to grasp this. Carrie Lam said yesterday she was open to forging travel deals with other like-minded jurisdictions, adding: “We will share with residents when we have something substantive.” A typically vague assurance from an administration that is intrinsically reactive, not proactive. As it is, Hong Kong residents stranded overseas who are fully inoculated must still complete three weeks hotel quarantine (at their own cost) if they return here. Why?

There was wistful talk of travel during a video conference last Thursday with some 30 of my Asia Pacific colleagues in Ally Law, the global alliance of law firms. Our last in-person gathering was in October 2019 when BC&C hosted the annual Regional Meeting, which included a dinner at the grandiose Central Police Station Compound (1864), now revitalised as a centre for culture and arts. Welcoming overseas visitors and showcasing this fine city – now THAT is a part of our heritage that I can’t wait to see restored.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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