Hong Kong’s dramatic police raids made global headlines last week but what happened next deserves a follow-up: most of the 50-odd pro-democracy politicians and organisers arrested for subversion were quietly released without charge. That’s because, while making arrests in Hong Kong might have become easier since the introduction of a new national security law last year, constructing a case before the courts remains just as difficult. Prosecutors must still meet strict standards of proof and argue cases in front of a strong bench; as legal experts have pointed out, it will be tough to successfully convict politicians for daring to win an election and using constitutional methods to hold the government to account.
Hong Kong’s top judge Geoffrey Ma retired last week and his successor, Andrew Cheung (pictured), has attracted plaudits. “There must not be any attempt to exert improper pressure on the judges in the discharge of their judicial functions,” said Cheung on Monday after his swearing-in ceremony with chief executive Carrie Lam. Hong Kong’s judiciary is currently dealing with a swathe of cases relating to the 2019 protests and the rule of law appears, for now, to be firmly in place. Plenty of defendants have been found innocent and courtrooms are hostile arenas for trumped-up charges and shaky police testimony. Just this week a student caught with a petrol bomb in his hand was cleared of arson because there was insufficient evidence of any intent to light it.
But how long can this last? Pro-Beijing politicians, frustrated by acquittals and light sentences, have been making calls for “judicial reform” and there is a limit to how much the judges can push back. Both Ma and Cheung have signalled willingness to reform, provided it doesn’t impinge on Hong Kong’s hallowed judicial independence. “It is certainly not a good starting point, or acceptable, to say, ‘I want reforms to ensure I always get the result which I want,’” Ma told the press in the run-up to his departure. With political opposition all but silenced in Hong Kong, the legal sector is having to muster its own defence.