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May 2021   |   Volume 22 No. 2

Human Rights Scholar Is New Dean of Law

The Faculty of Law has turned to one of its own to lead it through a period of challenge for the legal profession and the law in Hong Kong.

When Professor Fu Hualing – Warren Chan Professor in Human Rights and Responsibilities – was first approached to succeed Professor Michael Hor as Dean of Law, he hesitated. He was not from a common law jurisdiction (although he studied and worked in Toronto for seven years before coming to Hong Kong) and he was aware of sensitivities around having a Mainland Chinese lead the Faculty. But as he considered the challenges facing Hong Kong, he began to change his mind.

“After the protests in 2019, I began to think that maybe I can serve some function. The legal and political issues around Hong Kong’s interactions with China are entangled. The Dean should have an understanding of that larger political background and the very delicate issues involved, and someone coming from outside Hong Kong may have difficulties. So I thought I could give the position a try,” he said.

After one year as Acting Dean – and 23 years since joining HKU’s Faculty of Law on July 1, 1997 – Professor Fu was appointed late last year as full-time Dean of Law.

The job is daunting because of the centrality of rule of law to the practice of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ in Hong Kong and the central role the Faculty has played in this. Two of his predecessors – Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee, Cheng Chan Lan Yue Professor in Constitutional Law, and Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun – were closely involved in the political process that shaped Hong Kong’s constitution. Professor Fu will continue the tradition of having a public role but wants to expand the focus.

“My audience is not only the lawyers and judges of Hong Kong, but also the scholars, lawyers and judges of the Mainland. I think I can be an effective bridge between the two places so we can position ourselves as not only a law school in Hong Kong, but one that can promote reciprocal understanding and mutually beneficial interaction between Hong Kong and the Mainland, and have a positive influence on legal education in China,” he said.

Platforms for dialogue needed

The Faculty is already strong in scholarship on Chinese law and has had long-standing exchanges with law schools there. But the National Security Law (NSL) that came into force in Hong Kong last July 1 has created uncertainty about rights and freedoms across the city and its relationship with the Mainland.

Concerns have arisen about the scope and implementation of the NSL, illustrated by the denial of bail to figures such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying. Some worry student advocacy activities may also be affected. However, Professor Fu points out that teaching and learning have continued as before, as has research – in fact, Hong Kong legal scholars have a moral duty to Hong Kong people to research new topics arising from the NSL.

“My perspective is that people who are critical remain critical. They may be frustrated and doubtful about the future, but that doesn’t affect the way they express themselves in their academic writing,” he said.

He also believes there is room to manoeuvre within the new law. “The demand for constitutional reform, rule of law, rights, freedoms – you cannot just take that away by passing a law. I don’t think that was the intention either,” he said.

“But we cannot solve our difficulties by shouting at each other. Governance means engaging the other side to address their concerns and achieve agreement. We need to build platforms for dialogues, where you reach out your hand first. For now, this is hard to imagine because we are still in the initial operational phase of the NSL which is unfolding at the time of a pandemic.”

Inspired by human rights lawyers

The Faculty can help facilitate and promote such dialogue, given its long record contributing to constitutional debate about ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and the Basic Law. “We did that in the past and we will continue to do it. It’s a limited role but nevertheless a contribution that each of us can make,” he said.

“I’m optimistic about Hong Kong, and China as a whole. My faith is partly due to my belief in moral concepts like the rule of law, and partly motivated by people I know on the ground who are making sacrifices and won’t give up.”

He notes that young human rights lawyers in Hong Kong are starting to follow a similar path to that of human rights lawyers on the Mainland – a group he has studied since 2007. The latter numbered only about 30 when he started and have expanded to hundreds today. They have successfully brought cases related to gender, sexual and disability discrimination.

“The more political ones have stopped their activities [which increasingly led to detention in recent years], but the others have continued. They are still working on things like domestic violence and equality rights,” he said. “These lawyers are an inspiration to me because if they think they can achieve something, why would I not have confidence in that?”

Professor Fu also believes that more democratic accountability is essential in the long run. “I don’t think it can be avoided. At the end of the day, you have to allow people to have their voice heard and to participate in decision-making on matters relating to their future. I don’t think any government can ignore this.”

At the end of the day, you have to allow people to have their voice heard and to participate in decision-making on matters relating to their future. I don’t think any government can ignore this.