HONG KONG — More than 1,000 Hong Kong lawyers dressed in black marched in silence Friday to protest a recent Beijing policy statement they say undermines the Asian financial hub's rule of law.
The demonstration is the latest sign of growing anger over mainland China's expanding influence over Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy after the former British colony returned to Beijing's control 17 years ago.
Under the principle of "one country, two systems," Hong Kong — unlike the mainland — is guaranteed Western-style civil liberties and independent courts.
Beijing triggered a massive backlash when it released a policy statement earlier this month outlining its interpretation of "one country, two systems." The statement left Hong Kong's legal community fuming because it said "loving the country" was a requirement for judges, whom it characterized as part of the city's administration, similar to senior officials, legislators and the city's Beijing-backed leader.
"I think the message is clear: that they expect judges to consider political issues when it comes to the adjudication of cases, and that is completely unacceptable under our system," said Dennis Kwok, a lawmaker representing the legal sector who led the protest. He estimated that 1,700 showed up. The procession ended in front of the top court, where the lawyers stood in silence for three minutes.
Hong Kong's Bar Association, which represents more than 1,000 barristers, has previously criticized Beijing's stance, saying that categorizing judges as administrators would send the message that the courts aren't independent. The Law Society, which represents 9,000 solicitors, has said rule of law and an independent judiciary are "indispensable and sacrosanct."
In a statement, Hong Kong's Justice Department said Friday that the policy document had "no intention to interfere with the rule of law and judicial independence."
The timing of the document's release was widely seen as a veiled threat from Beijing to Hong Kong ahead of an unofficial referendum by activists to bolster support for democratic reform. About three-quarters of a million people have already cast ballots in the vote, which ends Sunday.