The US consul general to Hong Kong “arbitrary twisted” and “intentionally smeared” Beijing’s interpretation of the national security law, the Hong Kong government has said. The comments came after the American diplomat raised concerns over the security law and a recent decision from China’s top decision making body.

Gregory May, US consul general to Hong Kong and Macau, criticised the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ (NPCSC) interpretation of the national security law, which confirmed that the city’s leader and national security committee could decide whether foreign lawyers can take part in national security cases.

Gregory May speaking at a forum held by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on January 25, 2023. Photo: CSIS, via video screenshot.

The interpretation “could further undermine the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary system,” May said on Wednesday in a forum organised by the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

The consul general said that the interpretation was a concerning development for the rule of law, and that it expanded “Hong Kong executive branch authority to make decisions affecting cases without judicial oversight.”

“The United States will continue to call on the [People’s Republic of China] to abide by its international obligations and commitments with respect to Hong Kong, to cease its dismantlement of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, autonomy, the rule of law,” said May.

“We call on mainland and Hong Kong authorities to release immediately and drop all charges against individuals unjustly detained in Hong Kong, and to respect human rights for all.”

The Hong Kong government, in a statement issued late on Thursday afternoon, condemned and objected to May’s criticisms, and said that the interpretation would not harm the independence of Hong Kong courts.

“This legislative interpretation issued by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress does not directly deal with an actual legal case, but clarified meanings of relevant legal regulations… the problem of harming the independent judicial power and final adjudication of Hong Kong courts does not exist at all,” the statement read.

The chief executive would not replace the court in resolving other disputes in cases, nor would he be making rulings for courts, the government said.

‘Terrible playbook’

Following May’s speech, the Commissioner’s Office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong issued a statement on Thursday to “strongly disapprove and deplore” the consul general’s comments.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

May “vilified Hong Kong’s rule of law and freedom, showed support for anti-China forces in Hong Kong, and talked down Hong Kong’s development prospect,” which “only exposed his sinister intention of disrupting Hong Kong and containing China,” the statement read.

“We urge the relevant US officials to revisit the lessons of the past and not to be the Aunt Sally. With a terrible playbook at hand, the harder the actors play, the sooner they find themselves humiliated!”

The NPCSC issued a legislative interpretation of the Beijing-imposed security legislation last month, after Chief Executive John Lee invited Beijing to decide whether overseas counsels not qualified to practice in Hong Kong should be allowed to participate in national security cases.

Timeline of debate over admission of Timothy Owen (Click to expand):

The issue arose after pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai sought to hire King’s Counsel Timothy Owen to represent him in a now-adjourned trial.

Lai has been accused of two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and one count of collusion with foreign forces under the Beijing-imposed law. The Apple Daily founder is also facing one charge under a colonial-era law over allegedly seditious publications.

Last October, Hong Kong’s High Court granted an application to admit Owen in the trial despite objection from the city’s Bar Council and secretary for justice.

Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai. File photo: HKFP.

The Court of Appeal and Court of Final Appeal then rejected three subsequent attempts from the justice secretary to bar Owen from the trial.

Following the decision from the top court in November, Lee invited Beijing to consider issuing an interpretation.

While the NPCSC interpretation did not rule directly on whether foreign lawyers were allowed to take part in national security cases in any form, it confirmed that the chief executive and the Committee for Safeguarding National Security have the power to make the decision.

The national security committee, following the interpretation, held a meeting earlier this month, and urged the government to amend the Legal Practitioners Ordinance “as soon as possible” in order to bar Owen.

The security legislation, enacted in June 2020, also criminalised subversion, secession, and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.