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Legal Resistance under the Shadow of Authoritarianism: The Struggle for the Rule of Law in Post-Umbrella Hong Kong

Date: April 26, 2024

Time: 10 pm Hong Kong Time; 9 am Central Time; 10 am Eastern Time; 7 am Pacific Time

Speaker: Eric Lai, Georgetown University

Discussant: Jothie Rajah, American Bar Foundation

Registration Required


In 2020, The People’s Republic of China (China) imposed a national security law in its special administrative region Hong Kong, where there is a long-standing reputation for rule of law and judicial independence globally. While many scholars and analysts regard the national security law as indicating the beginning of the end of Hong Kong’s rule of law, this research project argues that the rule of law in Hong Kong has already been at stake when the sovereign state commenced encroaching on Hong Kong’s legal system since 1997. This presentation argues that, Hong Kong’s rule of law, inherited from British colonialism, has evolved incrementally towards convergence with China’s authoritarianism because of China’s comprehensive project of ‘authoritarian legal transplantation’ on Hong Kong’s legal system and professional legal culture. China’s united front strategy had further made the domestic legal profession more politicised than before and succeeded in consolidating pro-government or government-allied lawyers, referring to lawyers being economically driven to assist the authoritarian state to consolidate its ‘rule by law’ project. That said, the conflicts between the authoritarian project and the liberal understanding of the rule of law in Hong Kong have generated resistance from the legal profession. Based on extensive in-depth interviews with legal professionals, government lawyers, retired judges, civil society members and activists, as well as participant observation, this research project identifies three strategies that were carried out by lawyers to explain how the critical minority of the legal professionals resisted the authoritarian project. These expressions of legal resistance played essential roles in resisting the state’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s rule of law between 2014 and 2020. This presentation sheds light on the relationship between the rule of law, legal transplantation and legal profession in hybrid and semi-authoritarian regimes and on the implications of China’s expansion of its political, economic, and legal influences beyond its jurisdiction today.


speaker Eric Yan-ho Lai is a research fellow at the Center for Asian Law, Georgetown University Law Center. He received his PhD in law from SOAS University of London in 2022.


commentator Jothie Rajah is Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation. Her scholarship focuses on the intersections of law, language, and power. She is the author of two monographs, Authoritarian Rule of Law (2012), Discounting Life (2023), and numerous articles and chapters including the forthcoming “Normalising Authoritarianism: Authoritarian Rule of Law in Singapore and Hong Kong”, in Facal et al, eds, The Palgrave Handbook of Political Norms in Southeast Asia. She serves as book review editor for Law & Society Review, (with Eve Lester and Anna Reosti).

More to Come

To Be Announced.