Hong Kong's top judge on Wednesday said the city's Court of Final Appeal had never been interfered with by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, following a media investigation that found "multi-pronged" erosion of the city's promised judicial independence.
"Since taking office in 2010, the Chief Justice has not at any stage encountered or experienced any form of interference by the mainland [Chinese] authorities with judicial independence in Hong Kong, including the appointment of judges," Geoffrey Ma, chief justice of the court, said in a statement on the government's website.
"Judicial independence is guaranteed under the Basic Law and is a main component of the rule of law in Hong Kong," Ma said, in response to an April 14 report from Reuters that described the city's independent judiciary as being "in a fight for its survival."
Under the terms of the 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy underpinned by an independent judiciary, freedom of speech and association, and the principle of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, under the city's Basic Law.
But in recent years, pro-democracy lawmakers have been stripped of their seats after Beijing ruled their oaths of allegiance invalid, while pro-democracy candidates have been barred from standing in elections on the basis of their political views.
In 2014, Beijing decreed that while it would allow Hongkongers to each have a vote in popular elections, they would only be allowed to choose from among candidates approved by China, triggering the 79-day Umbrella movement for fully democratic elections.
Protests also erupted in June 2019 in response to plans to allow extradition to mainland China.
Since then, millions of pro-democracy supporters have taken to Hong Kong's streets with demands for a public inquiry into police violence, fully democratic elections, an amnesty for thousands of arrested protesters, and an end to the use of the word "rioters" to describe the movement.
'Beijing's effort to hobble the judiciary is multi-pronged'
While chief executive Carrie Lam formally withdrew hated amendments to the city's laws in October, protesters slammed her response as too little, too late, and demanded she address the rapid erosion of the city's promised freedoms.
"Beijing's effort to hobble the judiciary is multi-pronged, according to more than two dozen interviews with judges, leading lawyers and diplomats in Hong Kong," the Reuters report said, citing warnings from Chinese state media to Hong Kong judges not to let protesters off lightly.
"Judges and lawyers say there are signs Beijing is trying to limit the authority of Hong Kong courts to rule on core constitutional matters," it said, adding that Ma himself is under direct pressure from Beijing, citing a protest by a mainland Chinese law firm after he addressed a lunch event in South Korea.
"Some in the city's legal establishment are now bracing for the possibility that China will begin to meddle in the appointment of new judges, following objections by some pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong to two recent appointments on the top court," Reuters reported.
Judges fear the search to fill at least one position on the Court of Final Appeal's panel of judges could give Beijing the opportunity it is looking for, it said.
"We know from our interactions with senior mainland judges that they just don't get Hong Kong at all," the agency quoted one judge as saying. "They always want to know why Hong Kong is so confused and chaotic, and not 'patriotic.'"
The report said the battle for Hong Kong's judiciary is playing out behind the scenes, in the corridors of judicial power, but could ultimately threaten the right to a fair trial and equality before the law.
But Beijing has repeatedly issued edicts on political matters, including the debarring of lawmakers, because its National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee has the final say on how the Basic Law must be interpreted.
Pressure to enact security law
According to Reuters, judges now fear that China will begin to wield this power more frequently, potentially undermining the city's courts.
After a Hong Kong court overturned a government emergency ban on protesters wearing masks in November, China's state news agency Xinhua quoted an NPC standing committee member as saying that it had no right to rule on the ban's constitutionality.
Last week, Hong Kong government partially won an appeal last week against the November decision.
The Global Times newspaper, a tabloid published by the Communist Party's People's Daily, also wrote in November that "rioters" must be punished.
"Just like the rioters, the judges and lawyers who absolve rioters of their crimes will be despised," it said. President Xi Jinping, who is now serving an indefinite second term courtesy of the NPC, has ordered China to eschew all forms of Western liberalism, including judicial independence.
Chinese officials repeated calls on Wednesday for Hong Kong to enact national security laws on sedition and subversion, colonial-era versions of which have already been used to jail or charge people for what they say, rather than their actions.
Last month, Hong Kong police arrested Cheng Lai-king, the chairwoman of Central and Western District Council, on suspicion of "seditious intention" under existing colonial-era laws, after she shared a Facebook post containing personal details of a police officer.
Pro-democracy politicians fear that the use of colonial-era sedition laws could be a way of testing the waters in the light of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's insistence that Hong Kong enact sedition and subversion laws as required by Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Mass protests against the Article 23 legislation led to the early resignation of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, after which the bill was shelved. Officials are now repeatedly calling for its reintroduction to the Legislative Council, which is heavily weighted with pro-Beijing lawmakers.
Among them, Luo Huining, newly-appointed director of the Beijing's Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong, said on Wednesda that national security has been a "prominent weakness" in Hong Kong since the handover.
"This weakness could prove fatal at a crucial time," he said. "Laws protecting national security must be enacted as soon as possible."
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.