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Beijing intensifies attack on Paul Harris — and the Bar|Chris Yeung

Stopping short of calling on the Bar Association to axe its chairman, China’s top office in Hong Kong has warned the legal body would “go on a road of no return” if Paul Harris, SC, stays on.

The Liaison Office did not elaborate. Pro-Beijing figures have called for a disbandment of the association, which is registered under the Societies Ordinance. They claimed the legal body has already become a “political group.”

The attacks on Mr Harris, launched almost as soon as he took up the hot seat vacated by Philip Dykes, SC, in January due to his strong human rights background and membership in a political party in the United Kingdom, were intensified on Sunday when the Liaison Office issued a strongly-worded statement.

This time, he was criticized for his comments on the sentencing of veteran democrats over two unauthorized assemblies on August 18 and 31 in 2019.

In an interview with Stand News, Mr Harris said the sentencing was too harsh. The crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, he pointed out, will lead to people turning to “very damaging channels, which can include violence.”

A spokesperson for the Liaison Office said Harris had “spread distorted opinion, blatantly supported those who violated law, excusing those using violence, smearing law enforcement, and putting pressure on the judiciary.”

“If the Hong Kong Bar Association continues to be manned by foreign politicians who have lost their professional conduct such as Paul Harris, it will only be caught in one’s own trap, and go on a road of no return.”

State-owned newspaper Ta Kung Pao also cited on Monday pro-Beijing figures such as former chief executive Leung Chun-ying and lawmaker Priscilla Leung urging the Bar Association to cut ties with Harris.

The Bar chief is not the only one who expressed dismay at the sentencing and warned of its damaging implications for freedom of assembly, of expression and, even more damaging, social instability.

That his remarks, however, have enraged Beijing and the city’s loyalists is clearly because of his political background. His record in fighting for human rights and long-time connection with international bodies and political activities in the UK have juiced up the conspiracy theory of foreign forces meddling with Hong Kong affairs.

Harris has emerged as a perfect target of attack in the ongoing drive led by the central government and the Hong Kong government to uphold national security.

At a higher political plane, the “down with Harris” movement appears to have a bigger target, namely the Bar Association.

In an article published on April 1, the two pro-Beijing news media, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, quoted local political and legal figures as saying the Bar did not meet the criteria of “patriots administering Hong Kong.” Nor were they conducive to good governance, the rule of law and justice in Hong Kong, the report said, without elaborating.

“Residents have reason to ask whether the association’s frequent challenge against the authority of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and questioning its enactment of the national security law constitutes a breach of the national security law.”

The article questioned for whom the association served and whether it should continue to exist.

It sounds inconceivable that the association representing the city’s barristers will be outlawed.

But the worsening of ties between the association and the central and Hong Kong governments in recent years is clear.

A member of the Carrie Lam team has also privately branded the association as a “political body,” which he said has made it difficult for them to engage with them.

Against that background, it is not surprising that the Bar Association was left out in a briefing session held by government officials a few weeks ago for the legal profession about an overhaul of the election system.

Adding more uncertainty to the Bar was a report on Monday night about accusation by the Police against the Civil Human Rights Front of breaching the Societies Ordinance.

In a Facebook post, the front said its convenor, Figo Chan, received a letter from the force, demanding information on its finances and activities, deepening fears that it could be outlawed.

With key political figures from the pro-democracy arrested, prosecuted and jailed, a new round of attack on associations and groups in the pro-democracy camp seems to have begun in earnest, seeking to further silence the dissenting voices in the society.

(Chris Yeung, Chief Writer of CitizenNews, an online news platform, is a veteran journalist formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes on Greater China issues.)

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