The Secretary for Justice has urged Hong Kong’s legal societies to “stay professional” and steer clear of politics, one day after China’s People’s Daily blasted the Bar Association as a “street rat” and warned the Law Society representing solicitors not to follow its example.

“Recently, I am aware of views that legal bodies are neither political parties nor political organisations and should therefore strive to maintain their professionalism rather than politicisation. I fully agree,” Secretary Teresa Cheng wrote on her official blog on Monday.

Photo: GovHK.

“Our legal professionals should use their expertise to uphold the rule of law and promote legal services, maintaining professionalism as expected by the legal industry and the community.”

The People’s Daily, mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist Party, earlier called on the Law Society not to become a “politicised group” ahead of a leadership election on August 24 for the body which represents solicitors.

‘Politically neutral’

In an article on Sunday, it warned the body to “draw a clear line” between itself and “anti-China elements” to avoid the fate of the now-defunct Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union.

“If you draw a clear line with anti-China and chaotic Hong Kong elements, then [the Law Society] will not lose the recognition of the Hong Kong government like the [HKPTU], and suddenly collapse,” it said.

Law Society of Hong Kong. Photo: inmediahk.net via C.C.2.0.

The renewed attention by state media on the city’s legal bodies comes after two major pro-democracy groups disbanded last week – the teachers’ union and the main protest group, the Civil Human Rights Front. Both had separately come under increasing pressure from Hong Kong authorities following attacks by Chinese state media.

The article also called on the Law Society to to “keep up with the times” and play a “constructive role” in the city’s future. “To be responsible to its members, it should choose to engage in professionalism rather than politics.”

The city’s largest teachers’ union disbanded after 48 years of operations last Tuesday, citing “enormous pressure.” It folded a little over one week after the Education Bureau cut ties with the group following fierce state media attacks.

The Law Society declined to comment on an individual article but said it had always been politically neutral when carrying out its regulatory and representative roles.

“In reflecting the views of the profession, the Law Society has always remained politically neutral and placed our focus from the legal perspective,” its president Melissa Pang told HKFP in an emailed statement on Monday.

‘Street rat’

In its article on Sunday, the People’s Daily also took aim at the Hong Kong Bar Association which represents barristers, warning the Law Society not to follow in its footsteps.

“If you endorse the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ and abide by the Basic Law, then [the Law Society] will not break all exchanges and cooperation with the mainland and walk on a dead-end path like the Hong Kong Bar Association,” it read.

“The Hong Kong Bar Association has become Hong Kong’s street rat and its failure in Hong Kong is certain.”

Paul Harris, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association. Photo: StandNews.

The Hong Kong Bar Association is typically more outspoken than the Law Society on social matters. It has angered China by voicing concerns at certain judicial developments in the city, including the Beijing-imposed national security law and a new immigration law which went into force this month that prompted fears of an “exit ban.”

China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong took aim at its chairperson Paul Harris earlier this year after he criticised the sentencing of two veteran barristers over peaceful unauthorised assemblies in August 2019.

Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.