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SEPTEMBER 1 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 34 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Renato G. Jardiniano for Asiaweek.

Remembering Justice
Honor a Hong Kong official by letting the legal system work

ALSO:
The Way Forward:
Tensions over Anwar make reforms imperative in Malaysia

Hong Kong Immigration Department official Leung Kam-kwong was buried on August 20. The civil servant died from burns suffered in an arson attack on Immigration headquarters — a senseless act by a small group of mainland Chinese seeking permanent Hong Kong residency but frustrated over the territory's slow processing of their "right of abode" cases. One of the protesters also died, while 22 others have been charged with arson. Three also face murder charges.

Leung's funeral was attended by top local officials and more than 1,000 other mourners. In the eulogy, assistant director of immigration Mak Kwai-yun said "The spirit of [Leung's] sacrifice to safeguard justice and his courage to enforce the law is a model for civil servants and ordinary citizens as well." Sadly, his death produced a xenophobic backlash that appears pitched not to safeguard justice and enforce the law, but to salve longstanding anti-mainlander sentiments percolating just beneath society's surface. Outrage over the attack has led to a call for the repatriation of mainlanders who claim a right to live in Hong Kong under its Basic Law. Some 5,000 now living in Hong Kong have right-of-abode cases pending. Currently they are allowed to stay until their appeals are decided, but even the local security chief has called for them to be sent home to prevent more violence.

Since the reunification of Hong Kong with China, the issue of how many mainlanders could live in the enclave has strained the "one country, two systems" doctrine. Court rulings since the handover have tended to open the border to migrants, while politicians have tried to slam the door shut. What was seen by many as a blow to the autonomy of Hong Kong's judicial system came last year when Beijing reinterpreted the Basic Law, overruling a decision by the local Court of Final Appeal that granted residency rights to mainland children born before their parents became Hong Kong permanent residents. To justify a politically motivated intervention, the administration scared everyone with claims that more than a million migrants would swamp the city and overwhelm the economy unless Beijing stepped in.

Undermining an independent judiciary to achieve political goals may make xenophobes feel better in the short run. It will not serve the citizenry in the long run. The violent few who are responsible for the firebombing will rightfully be tried for their crimes. But punishing peaceable right-of-abode petitioners as well would serve chiefly to reinforce the mainland mindset that prompted the irrational attack in the first place: that the fate of the individual hangs on the whims of a few bureaucrats; that there is no justice, there is only politics.

The better course (and one that cooler heads in the Hong Kong government advocate) is to teach migrants from a country in which the rule of law is largely absent how the judicial system operates — and why the process often must be slow to be fair. These are lessons that all Hong Kongers, the majority of whom can trace their familial roots back to the mother country, had the opportunity to learn. Legitimate newcomers deserve the same chance. As a local law professor said: "Give them their day in court. Show them there is a fair process." Confidence in a legal system in which due process cannot be derailed by political expediency will do more to prevent violent protest than will expulsion.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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