Hong Kong's justice secretary Rimsky Yuen resigned on Friday, four years ahead of term amid ongoing tensions between the former British colony and Beijing over the rule of law and judicial independence.
"The Central People's Government has accepted my resignation," Yuen told reporters. "Today is my last day as secretary for justice of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government."
Yuen's time in office was marked by a series of hands-on interventions in the city's political life by China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, one of which led to the expulsion of six pro-democracy lawmakers from the Legislative Council (LegCo).
That intervention, in the form of a legal interpretation of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, by the NPC standing committee, sparked public protest by 2,000 members of the city's legal profession.
Yuen, 53, is also believed to have order the re-sentencing of three former student leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy Central movement, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, overriding a court decision that handed down non-custodial sentences on public order charges.
However, he was tight-lipped on the reasons behind the timing of his departure, which comes just one year in to a second, five-year term.
"Making the decision not to continue ... was not an easy one, but I believe that at different stages of life, one should do different things," Yuen said.
"We understand that people would have perhaps very divergent views, and I think in my post my belief has been all along that we have to stick to ... legal principles, even though we know that some people might not like them," he said.
Separate legal jurisdiction
Yuen's successor, senior counsel Teresa Cheng, said that the "prime mission" of the secretary for justice is to uphold the rule of law in the city's separate legal jurisdiction.
"Hong Kong has returned to the mainland for 20 years now," Cheng, 59, told journalists on accepting the post. "One country, two systems, is the most favorable and appropriate arrangement for Hong Kong."
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to Chinese rule, Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" under the "one country, two systems" model, including the continuation of its existing freedoms of speech, association and publication, and its separate and independent legal system.
But the city's Bar Association has hit out at a decree last month by the NPC standing committee that part of a high-speed railway station linking Hong Kong to mainland China's high-speed rail network will be subject to its laws.
The decree will extend Beijing's authority to parts of the high-speed rail terminus to enable a streamlined process for passengers boarding the trains in Hong Kong, despite of the city's status as a separate immigration, policing, and customs jurisdiction.
The "co-location" arrangement has already been criticized as unconstitutional as a violation of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The Bar Association called the move "the most retrograde step to date [that] severely undermines public confidence in “one country, two systems” and the rule of law."
Cheng appeared unwilling to get into the specifics of the legal argument on Friday.
"There have been situations whereby some unprecedented legal challenges have arisen," she said. But she claimed that the use of "objective and rational analysis based on legal principles" would result in the convergence of all opinions on the subject.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said he already has doubts about Cheng's thinking on the Basic Law.
"She may not take the position of Hong Kong in the highest priority in order to uphold the Basic Law, as a result that may hurt the core value of one country, two systems," Wu told reporters.
"The things she says could very easily mean that she will say the NPC standing committee's decision on the West Kowloon rail terminus is totally constitutional," he said. "I don't think that is an appropriate attitude for a justice secretary towards ... our judicial system, not according to my understanding of the Basic Law."
‘Rule of individual officers’
University of Hong Kong legal scholar Eric Cheung said Yuen had already failed to protect Hong Kong's status as a separate legal jurisdiction, however.
"The Hong Kong government went ahead and did something which they knew very well was in breach of the Basic Law," Cheung said. "Now, all the power lies with the NPC standing committee, whose word is law, and actions that were once in breach of the Basic Law are no longer in breach of it [according to them]."
"This isn't the rule of law, it's the rule of individual officials," he said.
Opposition lawmaker and barrister Tanya Chan, who heads a group protesting the rail terminus plan, said Yuen had left the destruction of the rule of law as his parting gift to Hong Kong, leaving Cheng with something of a poisoned chalice.
Meanwhile, lawmaker Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal profession in LegCo, said the justice secretary should be able to say no to Beijing.
"They shouldn't be making decisions for political reasons, or under political pressure," Kwok said. "That will destroy the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong people, as well as one country, two systems and the Basic Law."
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.