Editing Work

Polishing Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng’s English

The letter was meant for the English-speaking world but it never saw the light of day there.

Last month, after the Wall Street Journal published an editorial holding the Hong Kong courts to task for putting peaceful pro-democracy figures in prison, the Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng wrote to the paper to claim the city’s justice system is still intact.

WSJ never published Cheng’s piece. I learned of its existence only because she’d also posted her dispatch on the Hong Kong government’s website.

In not allowing Cheng to air her grievance, WSJ was actually doing her a favour. For had its readers laid eyes on her missive, not only would they have seized upon it as confirmation of the Hong Kong government’s puppet status (not that any more proof is needed). They would have derided the Lam administration for its inability to articulate its position in coherent English.

Cheng’s letter begins with:

“Your editorial dated 17th April refers.”

So elementary is the error contained here that it alone would have put international readers in a frame of mind to doubt Cheng’s assertion that Hong Kong’s common law system is still up and running: if English fluency has degenerated to this extent, it wouldn’t be surprising if common law in Hong Kong, along with other legacies from the city’s colonial past, have broken down too.

Below is Cheng’s next paragraph. 

Rights and freedoms, protected under the Basic Law and duly respected by the Government, are not absolute and subject to restrictions. These internationally recognized principles are adopted by the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) in 2005 holding that the statutory notification regime under the Public Order Ordinance is constitutional, and the Commissioner of Police’s discretion in relation to public order when balancing the rights to freedom of speech and assembly of some is no more than necessary to accomplish the constitutional legitimate purposes of maintaining public safety, public order and for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Cheng is presenting as her opening salvo a chunk of legal gibberish 79-words in length. This puzzling move leaves her reader wondering this about her: how demoralized Cheng has to be about her job to not care that most WSJ readers aren’t lawyers and therefore have no interest in the niceties about this legal case that took place in 2005?

In the next section of her letter, Cheng finally lands on material that could have supported her argument that justice still exists in Hong Kong. She fails to take advantage of it in any way, though.

Our judicial independence is premised on solid infrastructure: security of tenure, immunity of judges and non-revolving door. Our judges are appointed only by reference to their professional and judicial qualities, not subject to political vetting. Lord Sumption, a Non-Permanent Judge of the CFA, stated that Hong Kong is completely committed to judicial independence as evidenced by the “convictions of experienced, courageous and independent-minded judges.”

Given the tattered reputation of the Hong Kong government since the 2019 protests – at one point even PR firms declined to take it on as a client out of concern that their own reputation might be sullied in the process – when Chen finally manages to find a respected figure like Lord Sumption to vouch for Hong Kong’s legal system, you would have expected her to milk him for what he’s worth. But no. Cheng quotes him without giving her reader any information on where she got the quote. She is therefore encouraging the impression that she is citing him out of context by design – that the rest of his text is unfavourable to her case. Now, I’ve read Lord Sumption’s article in its entirety, and I can tell you, the opposite is true. He wrote his piece to defend the establishment and explain why he won’t respond to calls to resign. As he sees it, Britain’s “most important legacy to Hong Kong (is) not democracy but an impressive legal system,” and as long as Hong Kong judges are committed to applying common law procedures correctly, British judges like him still have a positive role to play. So, Cheng could have seized upon Lord Sumption’s resolve to stay on as proof that Hong Kong’s justice system is still working. Yet all she displays is a truncated quote from him without rhyme or reason.

Another observation about the above paragraph: Cheng should have thought twice about insisting that the appointment of judges has nothing to do with political vetting, for her readers are only one Google search away from finding out (1) as secretary of justice, she is part of the nine-person committee in charge of recommending candidates to the Chief Executive to select as judges, and (2) this committee itself is chosen by the Chief Executive. If Cheng’s readers also happen to remember the time BBC famously headlined a story with quote from Carrie Lam – “I’m no puppet of Beijing,” Lam had told the broadcaster in an exclusive interview – then they may arrive at a conclusion that’s opposite to the one Cheng is at pains to present. Judges ARE subject to political vetting, since they are chosen by someone who is so uneasy about her figurehead status that she once tried to deny it openly.

The rest of Cheng’s letter continues to be badly-written and poorly-argued:

“In the case you mentioned (which is sub-judice), the judge set out the reasons for the verdict in her judgment and explained in open court the sentencing principles. Due process is fully observed. Statements made oblivious to our judicial process are of little value.”

Insinuations aim to influence the public to infer that court rulings were made under undue pressure, as any informed observer would note, are non sequitur, unbecoming of any responsible media, and a blatant disrespect to the rule of law.

No one is above the law in Hong Kong, irrespective of their political and economic backing.

The reference to technical legal terms (“sub-judice” and “non sequitur”) are reader-unfriendly enough, but what’s even more bewildering is the seething hostility Cheng has allowed herself to display towards WSJ (“statements made oblivious to our judicial process are of little value”; “insinuations aim to influence the public (is) unbecoming of any responsible media”). Granted, an intentional display of contempt can be an effective literary gimmick if one is squarely in the right, but since Cheng has failed to make a strong case for her position, all she manages to achieve in clumsily attributing all this ill intent to WSJ is deepening the animosity her anti-CCP readers already harbour towards her government while alienating the neutral folks she could have stood a chance of winning over. 

I would have parade Lord Sumption properly and penned Cheng’s letter as follows: 

“The suggestion your paper made in its editorial dated April 16 (“Prison for Hong Kong Democrats”) that Hong Kong courts are doing Beijing’s bidding in detaining pro-democracy activists is based on an erroneous view of the city’s system of justice.

Amid the calls for more freedom that have emerged in Hong Kong in recent years, it’s easy to overlook the fact that even back in its colonial days, the territory had a working common law system without being a democratic society, and that this hybrid system posed no obstacles as Hong Kong strove to become a finance capital on the par with London and New York. Today, the practices that ensure the smooth-running of that system – such as the security of judicial tenure and the immunity of judges – are still being rigorously enforced. Foreign investors have therefore continued to embrace Hong Kong as a gateway to China.

Such is Hong Kong judges’ commitment to the common law tradition that Lord Sumption, one of the non-permanent judges of the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong, has declined to cede to calls for British judges to resign (these calls arose earlier this year, after Beijing made changes to the city’s electoral laws). In a statement explaining his decision, His Lordship said quitting would have amounted to “abandon(ing)” his judicial colleagues, whom he personally knew to be “experienced, courageous and independent-minded.” In any case, those who demand British judges to give notice fail to distinguish between democracy and the rule of law. Nor do they understand people like him can “serve the cause of justice better by participating in the work of Hong Kong’s courts.”

It is high time western media should cultivate a more nuanced view of the political reality in Hong Kong.

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