73rd Congregation (2013)
The Honourable WONG Yan-lung
An advocate of the rule of law, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, "It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens." His insistence that no man, not even a ruler, is above the law gave rise to the concept of the law having inherent authority. Since the handover in 1997, the rule of law has become a cornerstone of Hong Kong’s political system, and one of its core social values. The Secretary for Justice, as the chief legal advisor of the Chief Executive and the Hong Kong government, assumes the responsibility of criminal prosecution, and is committed to protecting public interests and human rights. He is the embodiment of Hong Kong’s rule of law, a role model for the city’s legal professionals. This individual shoulders great responsibility, and must be both courageous enough to tackle challenges and capable of contributing to the social good. He must have outstanding legal qualifications and sincere affection for the people of Hong Kong.
Mr Wong Yan-lung is a native of Chaozhou, Guangdong Province. The eldest son in the family, he was born in October 1963 to Mr Wong Kam-lit, a hawker of ice-cream and soft drinks in Wan Chai. As an honest man who refused to gamble or borrow money, Mr Wong Senior led an austere life and used his meagre earnings to support his family. Though they were poor, they were happy, and the children's education was not neglected. As the eldest son, Mr Wong understood his father's hopes and expectations and worked hard at school to meet them. When school was out, he helped his father peddle in the street without complaint.
Hardworking and intelligent, Mr Wong excelled at his studies. He entered the famed Queen’s College with outstanding examination results. Mr Wong was a high achiever, earning scholarships year after year and being chosen as the school’s head prefect. He performed particularly well in the subjects of arts. With his quick wit and eloquence, Mr Wong was also a frequent and renowned participant in the school’s debate competitions. Though young, he harboured lofty ambitions. One of his articles published in a Queen’s College journal reflected his discontent and regret over the public’s lack of sense of belonging in the wake of the handover. To help improve the lot of the lower class and protect people as a whole, Mr Wong selected the arts stream for his high school studies, paving the way to his study of law in university. Queen’s College was at the time known for its science subjects, which most top students selected, and thus his choice was a concern for the school. Nevertheless, Mr Wong stood firm in his decision, in spite of the advice of the principal. He scored 7 A’s in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, 3 A’s and 1 B in the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination, qualifying for a Prince Phillip Scholarship to the school of law at Magdalene College in the University of Cambridge. At this, one of the world's most prestigious universities, studying beside outstanding students from around the world, he had to put in extra effort. Mr Wong persevered with only his memory of what he heard in lectures and diligent library study, graduating from Cambridge with a BA in Law and an MA in Law with flying colours. He was called to the Bar in England and in Hong Kong both in 1987, and in 2002, at the young age of 38, he was appointed Senior Counsel. He was elected a Master of the Bench of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in 2007, and was conferred an Honorary Fellowship by Magdalene College in 2009. His successes in both the academic and professional fields have been truly remarkable.
A renowned Confucian quote says, "A noble man enlightens people and shapes customs by first educating the people." Through education, the saying explains, an individual can better contribute to society by educating others and serving as a moral example. When he completed his studies in England, Mr Wong's vision of serving society by standing for the people and impartially upholding the law led him to return to Hong Kong and became a pupil to Mr Andrew Li Kwok-nang, who later became the city’s Chief Justice. Mr Wong sat as a Deputy High Court Judge of the Court of First Instance, and served as the Chairman of the Special Committee on Legal Education of the Hong Kong Bar Association. On 17 October 2005, former Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie resigned, and Mr Wong was approached by the government to succeed her. Modest as always, Mr Wong gave the offer serious consideration and finally accepted on the grounds that the position will allow him to uphold the rule of law and maintain social justice. He became the youngest person in Hong Kong's history to take on this post. The news was well received by the public, the media thoroughly covered the story of his rise through hard work, dubbing it 'the story of Hong Kong'.
Following the Reunification in 1997, Hong Kong has operated under the principle of “One
Country, Two Systems”, a policy of high autonomy based on the Basic Law. However, under Article 158 (Paragraph 1) of the Basic Law, the power of interpretation of the Basic Law is vested in the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (SCNPC).
On 15 May 2008, FG Hemisphere Associates LLC brought an action in the Hong Kong courts against the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo) in an effort to enforce arbitration awards regarding a debt owed by the government of the Congo. Hong Kong’s Courts of First Instance granted the plaintiff the relief sought against the Congo. On 7 July 2008, the Congolese government requested the court to reserve the ruling, arguing that the Congo had immunity as a state and the Hong Kong courts had no jurisdiction over a sovereign country. There were heated debates between the plaintiff and defendant on whether absolute immunity applied under Hong Kong’s common law system after the handover. It was a see-saw battle and the result would have significant impact. If it was not handled properly, it might weaken people’s confidence in the rule of law of Hong Kong. Mr Wong was cautious in handling the case as Intervener. On the one hand, he had to respect the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary, but on the other, the issue involved sovereignty matters. The case thus posed a tough challenge as to how the new constitutional order under the Basic Law should be observed. On 8 June 2011, the Court of Final Appeal handed down the provisional ruling, a 3-2 decision in favour of the defendant. It said, “Subject to the Standing Committee’s interpretation of the provisions concerned, we make the following Orders, namely:…That it be declared and a Declaration granted that the HKSAR courts have no jurisdiction over the 1st defendant in the present proceedings.” In accordance with the Basic Law, the ruling was subsequently submitted to the SCNPC. On 26 August 2011, the SCNPC reaffirmed the ruling of the Court of Final Appeal in its statement of interpretation. It was a win-win result for all sides: the handling and the development of the case demonstrated respect for the principle of judicial independence for Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal while also reaffirming the SCNPC’s status to interpret the Basic Law. Moreover, the case had reinforced the understanding and trust between the authorities of the Mainland and the judiciary of Hong Kong. On the day that the Court of Final Appeal announced the ruling, nothing changed in the city - not the landscapes of Victoria Harbour. Certainly not the low-key style of Mr Wong, who took no credit for the decision.
During his tenure as Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice, Mr Wong dedicated himself to strengthening ties with overseas bodies providing legal services. He convinced the Hague Conference on Private International Law to set up its Asia Pacific Regional Office in Hong Kong, a move hailed as an endorsement of Hong Kong’s position in legal service. Mr Wong also led a team of representatives from various professions to promote the versatile functions of mediation and arbitration, and initiated the enactment of the new Mediation Ordinance, successfully elevating the city’s international status as a dispute resolution centre.
An accomplished member of society's elite but born among its poor, Mr Wong did not fail to give back to the underprivileged. In 1991, he joined the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association, a charitable group founded by Christians, happily visiting the homeless, chatting with them and even helping them shave. In 1996, he wed fellow Cambridge graduate, Esther Chan, and the couple donated all of their wedding gift money - hundreds of thousands of dollars - to the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association, in an illustration of their generosity and goodwill. Mr Wong also contributed significantly to tackling drug problems among young people, even leading a high-level task force on youth drug abuse and helping to establish relevant policies in the prevention of juvenile drug abuse. He has also expressed his concern about the problems facing young people from lowincome families, and encourages them to make a determined effort to strive and excel in adversity, as he did.
Today, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, we should be proud of Mr Wong, who was born in the same month and year of the University. From humble beginnings, Mr Wong achieved success through hard work and dedication. He was not afraid to shoulder responsibilities and make contributions. In his seven-year tenure as Secretary for Justice, he contributed significantly to the implementation of the Basic Law and protection of rule of law in the city. His success story sets an example and has an inspiring, far-reaching effect for all Hong Kong people, particularly for the poor and for hardworking students. Mr Vice-Chancellor, I have the great honour of presenting to you The Honourable Wong Yan-lung for the award of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.