Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen is to resign soon, bringing his second term of office to an early end, according to sources close to the government cited widely by local media.
Yuen is expected to be replaced by Senior Counsel Teresa Cheng, a barrister from Des Voeux Chambers.
Cheng specialises in commercial, company, construction and telecommunications law, according to the website of her chambers. She is also an arbitrator and mediator, and was formerly the Chair of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre.
On Thursday, a number of lawyers and politicians commented on the news. Executive Council member and barrister Ronny Tong said Cheng’s perceived lack of political affiliation made her an appropriate choice, given the current political climate in Hong Kong.
Winnie Tam, former chair of the Bar Association, said Cheng is a competent lawyer with experience in tackling complicated issues. She said Cheng’s background in international arbitration would be an asset for the position.
Pro-democracy lawmaker James To also said that Cheng’s arbitration background has likely earned her Beijing’s approval, as China will face financing issues in different countries participating in its Belt and Road Initiative. Cheng’s expertise may help Hong Kong become a leading arbitration centre, To said.
Others, however, had lukewarm responses to the choice of candidate.
Barrister Alan Leong of the pro-democracy Civic Party said he had never heard Cheng comment on issues such as human rights and the rule of law, and that her political position remains unclear.
He said it may not be realistic to expect Cheng to stand firm against Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s legal system, but he expressed hope that Cheng will defend One Country, Two Systems with professionalism.
His party colleague Audrey Eu, also an experienced barrister, said she is not familiar with Cheng. But she said it is imperative that the new justice secretary adopts a different approach than Yuen by acting professionally and making decisions based on sound legal reasoning.
Yuen, 53, took office as Hong Kong’s justice secretary in 2012. Before that, he was a member of China’s political consultative body between 2008 and 2012, and chaired the Bar Association from 2007 to 2009.
During his time in office, he was accused of failing to defend the rule of law as Hong Kong experienced a series of political conflicts.
In 2016, Yuen, along with then-chief executive Leung Chun-ying, launched a case over the oath-taking of Youngspiration’s Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, asking the court to disqualify the pair from the legislature. Yuen said the issue did not require an interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, but Beijing provided one the weekend before the court was to announce its verdict.
Yuen and Leung later also asked the court to disqualify four other pro-democracy lawmakers, Lau Siu-lai, Leung Kwok-hung, Nathan Law and Edward Yiu.
Yuen also faced calls to resign after filing sentence reviews seeking harsher sentences for activists involved in the Civic Square protests and the northeast New Territories demonstrations in 2014. The Occupy trio – Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow – and 13 activists were jailed, despite having previously completed their community service sentences.
After the trio was sent to jail, Reuters cited an unnamed senior government source as saying that Yuen overruled prosecutors who initially recommended not pursuing the case further, and insisted on re-opening the case.
Yuen stayed on from the last administration to handle the controversial joint checkpoint arrangement of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link. However, local media reported that he had been preparing to revert to private practice for some time, and will return to Temple Chambers.
The government is expected to announce his resignation after China’s top legislature makes the decision on the controversial joint checkpoint arrangement for the express rail link. Cheng is expected to take up the role in January 2018.
Additional Reporting: Karen Cheung