Nearly 2,000 members of Hong Kong's legal profession, wearing black, marched silently on Friday to the territory's highest court in protest over a recent white paper by China asserting Beijing's power and declaring that Hong Kong judges should be "patriotic."
The white paper, issued on June 10 amid growing political tension surrounding the democratic process in the upcoming 2017 chief executive race, categorizes judges in Hong Kong as administrators who need to be "patriotic," as well as asserting Beijing's "comprehensive jurisdiction" over the former British colony.
The paper has been roundly criticized by the influential Hong Kong Bar Association, while a retired judge and two leading law deans came out in support of Friday's marchers.
Some 1,800 lawyers, legal scholars, and law students wearing black gathered outside the High Court in Admiralty at around 5.00 p.m. and marched to the Court of Final Appeal.
A University of Hong Kong law student surnamed Chan, who took part in the march, said he was marching in solidarity with the territory's widely trusted judicial system.
"I am afraid that Hong Kong's judicial independence is coming under political pressure, and I fear it will waver," Chan said.
"That's why I have come out in support of it," he said.
A few dozen pro-Beijing protesters also gathered at the start of the march, shouting "we support the white paper!"
Judicial independence threatened
Hong Kong Civic Party Chairman Audrey Eu, herself a lawyer by profession, said Beijing's white paper had sparked widespread fears that the ruling Chinese Communist Party would start micromanaging Hong Kong, despite having promised the territory "a high degree of autonomy" ahead of its1997 handover from Britain.
"There were some areas of this white paper that weren't in line with the Basic Law or the principle of 'one country, two systems,'" Eu said, referring to Hong Kong's miniconstitution.
"There is a big conflict with Hong Kong's judicial independence," Eu said.
"Judges have always enjoyed judicial independence here in Hong Kong, and they are not a part of the executive," she said. "Judges must swear an oath to uphold the Basic Law, not any government."
She said the turnout of lawyers in public protest was the largest seen since the handover.
"This has been a huge response," Eu said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Teng Biao also took part in the march.
"Judicial independence is so important for the rule of law, and it should be defended at all times and in all places," Teng said.
"Hong Kong people have always cared about the human rights situation in mainland China ... so I feel a personal duty to march alongside Hong Kong people at this crucial juncture, to defend the rule of law," he said.
Media, computer attacks
Tensions are running high in Hong Kong following a series of attacks in Chinese state media on an unofficial referendum on the democratic process and a massive cyberattack on the poll's website.
More than 740,000 people have cast ballots since the mostly online PopVote poll opened last Friday, while organizers of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement have vowed to blockade Hong Kong's business district if universal suffrage and public nomination of candidates are denied to the city's voters.
The poll has been repeatedly slammed as "illegal" by China's state-controlled media, and Beijing's hard-line response may have boosted the numbers taking part, political commentators say.
Hong Kong Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen said the white paper "carries no intention to impose requirements other than those in the Basic Law on judges," local media reported.
However, Professor Johannes Chan, dean of law at the University of Hong Kong, said Beijing seems to have changed its previous approach.
"I do think that the white paper represents a change in approach towards Hong Kong and that the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary is threatened," Chan told the South China Morning Post before joining the march.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.