Hong Kong Chief Justice Andrew Cheung (left) and Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People’s Court of China

OPINION-A New Pattern of the Courtesy Visit of Hong Kong Court Judges to Beijing

The courtesy visit of several Hong Kong court judges led by Chief Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung to meet several mainland counterparts in Beijing from May 18 to 21 was significant not only because of the unprecedentedly high-profile coverage, but also due to the new context and content of this visit shortly after the discussion of judicial reform in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

This courtesy trip was Cheung’s first visit to Beijing after he took office as the Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal. Accompanying him were Chief Judge of the High Court, Justice Jeremy Poon Shiu-chor, Justice Carlye Chu Fun-ling from the Court of Appeal of the High Court and Judiciary Administrator Esther Leung Yuet-yin. 

In Beijing, Andrew Cheung met Zhou Qiang, the President of the Supreme People’s Court. Cheung and his three colleagues visited the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SCNPC) the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Ministry of Justice, and the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. They also paid visits to the Intellectual Property Court of the Supreme People’s Court and Beijing Internet Court, holding discussions on issues like technological application and judicial exchanges. 

On May 19, the secretary-general of the SCNPC, Yang Zhenwu, met Cheung’s delegation. The meeting was marked by the attendance of the director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC, Shen Chunyao, who is also the director of the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee. Zhang Yong, the deputy director of the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee, attended this meeting. It can be inferred from this meeting’s attendees that the high-level mainland officials responsible for the Hong Kong Basic Law exchanged their views with the senior judicial officials from the HKSAR – a rare but perhaps a new and significant communication pattern.

According to Wen Wei Po on May 22, Yang told Andrew Cheung’s delegation that the visit from the Hong Kong judiciary marked an “active attitude” towards mutual exchanges and he expressed his hope that such communication would be enhanced in the future.

More importantly, Yang introduced President Xi Jinping’s rule of law thought and its “richness” to the delegation. He hoped that the Hong Kong court judges would understand deeper the “substantial content” of how the Chinese constitution and the Basic Law can constitute the constitutional basis of the HKSAR. Moreover, the Hong Kong judges should, according to Yang, “understand the significance of the Hong Kong Basic Law, the Hong Kong national security law, and the resolutions of the SCNPC” so that “the principle of ‘patriots governing Hong Kong’ can be implemented” and that “the important function of the judiciary in maintaining the national sovereignty, security, developmental interest, and Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability can be fully exercised.”

On May 20, Tang Yijun, the Minister of Justice, met Cheung’s delegation. Tang introduced how China has achieved great progress of governing the entire nation in accordance with the law. Tang remarked that “at present, we have to learn deeply Xi Jinping’s rule of law thought, maintain the principles of Party leadership, of the people as the master, and of governing the country by law and in an organic and united way.” Under these circumstances, Tang said, “utilizing the law to govern the country, to lead the regime, to promote the progress of the executive, to rule the nation-state, to integrate the society and its construction, to promote scientific legislation, and to propel the people to obey the law can create a new scenario of governance by the law.” Tang’s remarks appeared to be highly legalist, introducing the new thought of Chinese legalism to the Hong Kong delegates.

Tang added that, in recent years, Ministry of Justice has been interacting and cooperating with the Hong Kong judiciary. As with Yang Zhenwu, Tang Yijun expressed his hope that both sides would strengthen collaboration and communication to achieve the objective of “fully, accurately, effectively implementing the constitution, the Basic Law and the Hong Kong national security law.” In this way, according to Tang, China’s national sovereignty and security can be protected, Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability be maintained, and the renaissance of the Chinese nation would be realized.

In response to the remarks from the Chinese judicial officials, Andrew Cheung said that the delegation expressed its gratitude to the concern and care expressed by the Chinese judiciary. He also expressed his wish to promote further exchanges and cooperation, especially in the technological application in the judiciary. Cheung added that this visit could strengthen the Hong Kong judiciary’s understanding of China’s development, including the rule of law development, judicial reforms, intellectual property rights protection, and the concept and application of smart judiciary.

On the morning of May 20, the Hong Kong delegation met the deputy president of the Supreme People’s Court, He Rong, who introduced how the mainland set up the intellectual property rights court and Internet court to be innovative and scientifically progressive. Both sides agreed to forge closer cooperation in deepening their mutual understanding of intellectual property rights protection and the establishment of a smart judiciary. Andrew Cheung expressed the delegation’s appreciation of the progress of China’s smart judiciary, and he said the Hong Kong judiciary has much to learn from the mainland experiences.

From the perspective of political analysis, Cheung’s delegation visit was politically significant in several aspects. First and foremost, the courtesy visit took place at a time after the implementation of the Hong Kong national security law and the publication of a paper by the Hong Kong judiciary on judicial reform. This courtesy visit has attracted considerable media attention at least from the patriotic media in the HKSAR. The last visit of the Hong Kong judiciary could be traced back to June 2016, when the former Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma led a six-member delegation to visit Beijing (Andrew Cheung was one of the six members). In July 2013, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma had led a three-member delegation (Andrew Cheung was also one of them) to Beijing for a three-day visit. Ma had paid an earlier visit to Beijing in January 2011. However, all the three visits led by Geoffrey Ma in 2016, 2013 and 2011 were not covered extensively in the Hong Kong media. Ma’s predecessor, Andrew Li Kwok-nang, visited Beijing in September 2004 with six other judicial officials, including Geoffrey Ma at that time. From 1999 onwards, Hong Kong court judges have trained mainland judges through a program at Tsinghua University.

Second, the content of the Hong Kong delegation’s visit from May 18 to 21 was quite different from that of the past courtesy visits. The mainland judicial officials, such as Yang Zhenwu and Tang Yijun, highlighted the importance of the Hong Kong judiciary in implementing “fully” and “accurately” the Chinese constitution, the Basic Law and the Hong Kong national security law so that China’s sovereignty, national security and developmental interest can be protected. They also emphasize the importance of President Xi Jinping’s rule of law thought. Given the fact that the mainland judicial tradition has blended the judicial operation with the executive branch, the mainland emphasis on the “accurate” implementation of the Chinese constitution, the Basic Law and the Hong Kong national security law can be regarded as both new and unprecedented. In other words, the Hong Kong court judges are expected to learn more from the mainland’s rule of law practices and thinking, although the Hong Kong common law system remains quite different from the mainland law in both context and content.

Third, the Hong Kong judiciary has much to learn from the mainland counterpart, especially the concept and application of smart judiciary. Mainland courts have been utilizing the Internet and technology for meetings, hearing cases, and handling the judicial documents and cases in a far more effective and efficient manner than before. As such, the technological application of the Hong Kong judiciary can learn more from the mainland practices.

Fourth, the mainland judicial officials and legal experts responsible for the Hong Kong Basic Law met the Hong Kong delegation – a new phenomenon pointing to more communication and exchanges from the two sides in the coming years.

In conclusion, Chief Justice Andrew Cheung’s delegation visit to Beijing was unprecedented. Although it could be seen just as a regular courtesy visit, such a visit displayed a new pattern with new characteristics. This new pattern is characterized by the mainland judicial expectations that both sides can learn from each other and enhance mutual exchanges, and that the Hong Kong court judges can and will enhance their understanding of the need to implement “accurately” and “fully” the Chinese constitution, the Basic Law and the Hong Kong national security law. Another important characteristic is that Hong Kong court judges are increasingly expected to understand deeper the mainland’s rule of law thinking and practices. As such, the May 2021 visit of the Hong Kong judicial officials to Beijing was a watershed, marking the closer collaboration and deeper understanding between the members of the judicial branches of the two sides.