Article was originally published in TIME on 14 November 2016

It is normally difficult to get lawyers to stop talking and stay quiet. But that is exactly what happened last Tuesday, when 2,000 of them, all dressed in black, marched through the center of Hong Kong in a dignified “silent protest” against a move by the Chinese government to directly intervene in the city’s legal affairs.

At the beginning of last week, the executive body of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), issued an “interpretation” of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s miniconstitution that has provided the legal framework for the territory since its handover from Britain to China in 1997. The purpose of the interpretation was — and its probable legal effect would be — to bar two elected legislators from taking their seats in Hong Kong’s legislature. These lawmakers, Yau Wai-ching, 25, and Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, 30, have been elected on a platform advocating Hong Kong independence. Their specific offense (at least in the eyes of Beijing) was to unfurl a banner proclaiming “Hong Kong Is Not China” and to pronounce the country’s name in a derogatory manner during their swearing-in.

The interpretation has caused profound disquiet within Hong Kong, and particular consternation within the legal community. Immediately after the interpretation, the Hong Kong Bar Association expressed “deep regret” over the NPCSC’s action and stated that this would undermine “public confidence in the rule of law in Hong Kong” and its tradition of judicial independence. Dennis Kwok, the legislator representing the legal sector, quickly organized the silent protest, which was the biggest demonstration by the city’s lawyers since the handover, and which terminated at the Court of Final Appeal, an imposing neo-classical building that stands as a symbol of the separate legal system enjoyed by Hong Kong.

There is little dispute that the NPCSC has the legal power to issue interpretations of the Basic Law. But there is also a widespread sentiment (at least in Hong Kong, if not across the border) that it is a power that should be used only in very rare circumstances because of the grave damage it is capable of causing. Even Hong Kong’s former Chief Justice, Andrew Li — a respected figure who speaks in the precise, cautious manner typical of British-trained patricians — has stated in no uncertain terms that the NPCSC should refrain from using its power in a manner that overrides the Hong Kong courts: “Although it would be legally valid and binding, such an interpretation would have an adverse effect on judicial independence in Hong Kong.”

Wilson Leung and Kevin Yam

Progressive Lawyers Group

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