Britain is considering pulling British judges from the bench of Hong Kong's top court following China's imposition of a sweeping anti-subversion law in Hong Kong and its interference in the local legislature, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Monday.
In the latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong, issued twice a year on the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in the former British colony since its return to Chinese rule in 1997, Raab stated that Beijing's decisions to impose the National Security Law in Hong Kong and undermining of the local legislature are substantive breaches of the declaration.
"I have begun consultations with Lord Reed, President of the U.K. Supreme Court, concerning when to review whether it continues to be appropriate for British judges to sit as non-permanent judges on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal," Raab said in the foreword of the 29-page report.
The semiautonomous territory was promised an independent judiciary under the "one country, two systems" framework. The city's top court has been vested with power of final adjudication, however, subject to rulings or constitutional amendment by China's legislative body, the National People's Congress.
Nine of the 13 foreign non-permanent judges sitting on the Court of Final Appeal are British.
Upon an agreement between Hong Kong and Britain at the time of the city's handover, two serving judges from Britain have been provided to the Court of Final Appeal to ensure Britain's continuing commitment to safeguarding the rule of law in Hong Kong, according to a statement by Lord Reed in July.
"The new security law contains a number of provisions which give rise to concerns. Its effect will depend upon how it is applied in practice. That remains to be seen," Reed said while raising concerns over the newly imposed National Security Law and British judges' future role in Hong Kong's judiciary.
"Whether judges of the Supreme Court can continue to serve as judges in Hong Kong will depend on whether such service remains compatible with judicial independence and the rule of law," he said.
Reed became the only serving British judge sitting in the Hong Kong court after another serving judge, Lady Hale, retired from the Supreme Court earlier this year. The rest are retired British judges, and judges from Australia and Canada.
The National Security Law, targeting acts of sedition, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, was promulgated on June 30, which Raab said was in direct conflict with Hong Kong's constitutional arrangement that such a law should be enacted by the territory.
"This new legislation allows the mainland Chinese authorities to take jurisdiction over certain cases without independent oversight and to try cases in mainland courts. The chilling effects of the National Security Law can already be seen in Hong Kong," he said.
Raab also highlighted the disqualification of 12 opposition candidates for the legislative election, including four then-incumbent lawmakers who were later fired following China's parliament's decision that sets out the grounds for disqualifying Hong Kong lawmakers.
The Hong Kong government on Tuesday dismissed as "irresponsible remarks" the contents in Britain's report, rejecting claims that the National Security Law undermines Hong Kong's autonomy and freedom and that disqualifying disloyal lawmakers was a breach of freedom of speech.
"Swearing allegiance to the system of the country and upholding laws of the state is an international norm for public officers and any breach of the oath will not be tolerated," the government said in a statement.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing in response to the British report that Britain should abandon its colonialist thinking, stop being a hypocrite and having double standards.
"Britain has no supervisory power or moral responsibility over Hong Kong, and has no right to interfere in Hong Kong's affairs," Zhao said in a news briefing. "Having not given Hong Kong democracy during the colonial days, Britain today has no right to judge."
Britain has launched a residency plan for some 2.9 million Hong Kong people eligible for the British National (Overseas) passports, in response to China's perceived suppression in Hong Kong.