HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong lawyers dressed in black marched through the city on Friday to protest against what they see as Chinese interference, a sign of growing concern about the rule of law in the Asian financial centre and a further act of dissent against Beijing.
Britain returned Hong Kong to Communist Party-ruled China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula, with the promise of a high degree of autonomy. Unlike on the mainland, Hong Kong's judiciary enjoys a level of independence similar to that in the West.
But Beijing raised alarm when it released a white paper this month, spelling out its interpretation of the one country, two systems model, in which it said being patriotic and "loving the country" is a basic requirement for the city's administrators, including lawyers.
The march was the third held by the legal profession since the 1997 handover.
Hundreds of local and foreign lawyers wearing black suits and shoes, sweating heavily in the sweltering heat, marched from the High Court to the Court of Final Appeal, where they stood in silence for three minutes.
"The legal profession in Hong Kong will never compromise on the rule of law," said Dennis Kwok, a lawyer and a member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, who organised the march.
"We hope we are sending a very clear message."
Organisers said about 1,800 people attended the protest.
The Hong Kong government said in a statement the rule of law was the cornerstone upon which Hong Kong built its success, adding the white paper was not intended to interfere with that.
Some lawyers on the march were taunted by a pro-Beijing group who shouted through loud hailers, voicing support for the white paper that reasserted Beijing's authority over Hong Kong.
One man filmed the lawyers as they marched. He declined to be identified although he said he did not belong to the media or police. Many recent rallies in Hong Kong have seen scuffles break out between pro and anti-Beijing groups, including the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protests in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square, an event that had always been peaceful in Hong Kong.
China bristles at open dissent - Hong Kong is the only Chinese city where the June 4 protests are allowed - and several current and retired Chinese officials have warned in recent months that China is prepared to unleash the People's Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in the case of any riots in Hong Kong.
Barrister Martin Lee, one of the founders of the main opposition Democratic Party, listed a number of nationalities of lawyers in Hong Kong and asked how they were expected to be patriotic to China.
The Bar Association, which represents more than 1,000 barristers, also raised concerns this month, saying judges and judicial officers should not be regarded as part of "Hong Kong's administrators".
The march coincides with an unofficial referendum on democratic reforms in Hong Kong, part of a civil campaign that has been branded illegal by the former British colony and by Communist Party authorities in Beijing.
The referendum ends on Sunday, just ahead of an annual protest against the government which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of marchers, as well as Beijing's ire.
Organisers of the referendum have promised to mobilise a separate protest to occupy the business district of Hong Kong later this year if Beijing does not agree to elections in 2017 that meet international standards.
While Beijing says Hong Kong can go ahead with a vote in 2017 for the city's top leader, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, specifies that only a nominating committee can pick leadership candidates. Pro-democracy activists say this should be changed to allow public nominations.
On Friday, the Big Four accounting firms took out adverts in Hong Kong newspapers, urging organisers of the campaign to resolve disputes through dialogue, saying they oppose any moves to shut down the city in protest.
While some in the legal community are enraged by what they see as Beijing's increasing interference in the city, the business sector has so far showed little reaction.
"The rule of law is being undermined, but is it being undermined in a way that is going to affect corporates? Not really," said Arnout van Rijn, CIO and APAC Equities Fund Manager at Robeco, a Dutch-based asset management firm.
Hong Kong ranks 16th out of 99 countries and regions in the 2014 Rule of Law Index, released by the World Justice Project. The United Kingdom ranks 13th.
Additional reporting by Saikat Chatterjee; Clare Baldwin and James Zhang; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie