Away From the Barricades, an Argument About Rule of Law in Hong Kong

October 13, 2014 Updated: October 15, 2014

Spun off from the larger effort to obtain universal suffrage for Hong Kong, a controversy over the meaning of the rule of law has broken out.

Responding to charges from student leaders of the democracy movement that the government used legal wording as a political tool to oppose the demonstrations, the Hong Kong Bar Association on Oct. 8 issued a statement claiming the students’ position “publicly undermined the spirit of the law.” 

Answering the Bar Association’s accusation, Federation of Students standing committee member Yvonne Leung Lai Kwok said that the government was the side that lacked respect for the law, according to Apple Daily. 

Between the legal framework of the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s constitution) and the decision of the Chinese regime’s National People’s Congress that would deny Hong Kongers the right to nominate their own political candidates, there remains much room for interpretation, Kwok said. 

According to Kwok, the Federation of Students respects the structure of the Basic Law. Their beliefs that universal suffrage should be implemented within the framework of the Basic Law, Kwok said. 

A statement released by a Hong Kong law students’ committee chimed in on the controversy, noting that “civil disobedience does not damage the spirit of the rule of law. Rather, it verifies the rule of law because civil disobedience itself is a pursuit of the rule of law.” 

“Civil disobedience used with due restraint and sound judgment helps to maintain and strengthen just institutions. By resisting injustice within the limits of fidelity to law, it serves to inhibit departures from justice and to correct them when they occur,” the committee’s statement said, citing A Theory of Justice, a work of political philosophy written by John Rawls. 

The students’ position may also find support in a position taken by the Hong Kong government itself. 

In 2011, the Hong Kong Education Bureau sent copies of a teaching guide for the rule of law and Basic Law to schools. The document touches upon issues regarding civil disobedience, defining it as the demand for “revision or revocation of any unjust law through peaceful, non-violent and reasonable means.” 

“Civil disobedience is one of the ways for people to fight against unjust law,” the guide reads

In contrast to their Hong Kong counterpart, the Association of the Bar of the city of New York came out in support of the democracy movement. In a strongly-worded Oct. 7 letter to Hong Kong city chief Leung Chun-ying, Bar Association president Debra Raskin urged the Hong Kong government to “take all necessary measures to protect the right to freedom of expression and assembly.”