Face to Face with Ronny Tong, SC

After resigning from the Legislative Council and Civic Party on 22 June, Ronny Tong, SC reflects on his legal and political career and reveals what he plans to do next.

On Monday, 22 June 2015, in the wake of the failure of the Government’s electoral reform plan for the Chief Executive Election, Mr. Tong announced his resignation from the Civic Party and LegCo, indicating that he found it inappropriate to retain his seat because he stood for election as a Civic Party member.

In light of these recent developments, Mr. Tong agreed to speak with me about his career in law and politics, as well as on his plans for the future, which include continuing to work on creating the right conditions for certain democratic ideals to be realised in Hong Kong, albeit in a slightly different capacity.

Humble Beginnings

“What prompted me to pursue a career in law?,” Mr.Tong repeats after me in a drawn out cadence as he searches for words to begin. “I actually stumbled upon it by accident. When I was in secondary school, I never dreamt that I would become a lawyer, let alone a barrister. Neither my grades nor my English were very good. I wasn’t a member of the debate team, nor do I think I could refer to myself as a student with confidence.”

“What’s more,” he continues, slightly raising his pitch, “is that there was no local qualification scheme in Hong Kong at this time. This meant that if you could not afford to go to England to qualify, you had no chance of becoming a lawyer. I came from a very poor family, so I never imagined I would have enough money to buy an air ticket, much less go to England to qualify.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Tong always had his sights on studying at university. He recalls his best subject being history, but confessed that he struggled during one of his final history matriculation exams due to falling ill with a 40 degree temperature. Mr. Tong says that when he arrived to take the test, he asked the proctor if he could be excused and sit the exam another day. He was quickly and curtly rebuffed and told that this would not be possible, so he took the test.

“It should come as no surprise that I did not do well. I barely matriculated because of my public exam results,” he says shaking his head.

Hot off the Press – HKU Law Department In Need of Applicants

Due to his performance in secondary school, Mr. Tong says he wasn’t able to get into any of the Faculties, noting that there were only two Universities at the time (The Hong Kong University (“HKU”) and Chinese University (“CUHK”)); so he continued with a teller job he had taken up with a bank and lined up gigs playing jazz music in bars in Wan Chai and TST to earn money on the side.

Knowing that Mr. Tong’s academic and professional qualifications are decorated with accolades, I asked how he changed course, to which he replied, “It was really by chance.”

“One day, a former classmate visited me while I was working at the bank,” Mr.Tong recalls. “He said that the papers had run a story that HKU had recently established a Law Department, but few had applied. At the time, it was merely a Department under the Social Sciences Faculty. Few people applied because there was no promise that graduates would be able to qualify in Hong Kong after completing the programme – rather, they would have to go to England. Obviously this made many people question the point of getting a law degree in Hong Kong.”

“Nonetheless, my friend brought me an application form and encouraged me to apply. The application allowed me to choose up to three different Faculties. Because I didn’t think I could get into any of the others, I put down the Law Department for all three.”

A week after submitting his application, Mr. Tong received a call for an interview. Professor D.M.E. Evans, Professor John Rear and Mr. Bernard Downey, the only three academic staff in HKU’s Law Department, conducted his interview.

“The moment I walked into the interview room, Professor Evans noted that it seemed as if I had struggled with some of my coursework, which we further discussed.”

“Professor Evans then switched course and asked me what else I was interested in, besides law. I told him I liked jazz music and played in a rock band. Continuing to probe, he asked which jazz musicians I liked. When I said Wes Montgomery was one of my favourites, his eyes lit up. Apparently, Montgomery was one of his favourites, too. We spent the next 20 minutes discussing jazz music and Montgomery. Despite my grades, Professor Evans agreed to take me on. Sometimes I wonder if it was our friendly banter about jazz that helped me out in that interview.”

Off to Oxford

“The funny thing is,” Mr. Tong says with a smirk, “once I got into HKU, I came first in my class every year. When I graduated, I had earned a double first, which led to various offers from various universities to attend their post-graduate programmes, including Stanford and Oxford. It took me all of five minutes to decide on Oxford. Thereafter, I was awarded a scholarship to complete my B.C.L.”

When Mr. Tong left Hong Kong, they still hadn’t worked out the qualification scheme. It was only after he arrived in England that the current PCLL course was set up. “This meant that I had to take the bar exam in England,” Mr. Tong explained. “I completed my degree in two years. At that time, the B.C.L. was a two-year programme. I graduated in June 1974. I wanted to qualify as soon as possible, so I applied to sit for the bar exam that September, which gave me about two months to prepare.”

Generally, most graduates take a one-year course organised by the Bar Council before sitting for the exam, but Mr. Tong opted not to because he wanted to start working as soon as possible. “I was fortunate enough to find a Singaporean chap, who let me borrow his notes, so I was able to teach myself some of the tested subjects that I had never studied before, like tax and family law. After studying for two months, I sat for the exam, and I came out first!,” he beamed.

Getting Admitted in Hong Kong

Thereafter, Mr. Tong completed a six-month pupillage in Barry Sheen’s chambers at 2 Essex Court in London. He remembers that at this time, Michael David Thomas also had his Chambers at 2 Essex Court. Thomas later moved to Hong Kong to serve as its penultimate Attorney General before the Handover.

Mr. Tong returned to Hong Kong after his pupillage to practise, but ran into trouble upon his return when the Hong Kong Bar Association refused to recognise his six-month pupillage in England.

“I didn’t have much money, so I needed to find a way to start working at once. I decided to look for other avenues to be admitted. After reviewing the Legal Practitioner’s Ordinance, I found a provision that said the Court of Appeal had the discretion to admit people with limited practice. I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I try that?’. I took out an originating summons, arguing before the Court of Appeal that I should be admitted with limited practice. Luckily, I succeeded. My case is how admittance with limited practice all started!”

After that day, Mr. Tong says he never looked back. “I was approved to practise on a Saturday and on the following Monday, I was conducting a five-day trial in the High Court. I still remember to this day that the filing fee for the brief was around HK$4,000, which, at that time, was about a month’s salary. So I was quite fortunate that it worked out in my favour.”

Busy as a Barrister

Once admitted, Mr. Tong went on to build a successful practice as a barrister in Hong Kong, taking on many high-profile commercial cases, such as the Carrian Investments liquidation. In 1990, he was granted silk.

When asked if he worked on any cases that were particularly memorable, he reflected on the criminal case Au-Yeung Ping Keung v The Queen, commonly referred to as the ‘body-in-the-box’ case. This was a murder case involving a 16-year-old schoolgirl whose body was found mutilated in a box that was dumped in Happy Valley. The defendant was convicted and then appealed, at which point Mr. Tong was assigned by Legal Aid to defend him along with another senior member of the Bar.

“I was still taking on criminal work at this point in my career,” Mr. Tong says, “but this case was my last. It is the reason I gave up criminal work entirely.”

“It was a difficult case because up until the very end, Au-Yeung Ping Keung claimed he was innocent. Even after we failed in getting leave to the Privy Council, he continued to insist he wasn’t guilty. Since he had been sentenced to death – at this point Hong Kong still imposed the death penalty – I submitted a petition to the governor for clemency. We were able to get his sentence commuted to a life sentence. Still, to this day, I remember when all the avenues had been exhausted I went down to see him at the Supreme Court, which is the Legislative Council Building now reverting back to the Court of Final Appeal building. He took my hand and he cried and said, ‘I didn’t do it.’ I don’t know whether I believe him or not, but I just remember feeling extremely bad. I thought, if this man was innocent, there is something seriously wrong with our criminal justice system.”

“This case left a very deep impression on me; ever since, I have solely focused on commercial and corporate litigation.”

Called to the Bar

Mr. Tong became Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association in 1999. He held the position until 2001.

“The first thing I said when I became the Chairman is that I would stay away from politics, but eight days after my election, the Court of Final Appeal ruled on the right of abode case, holding that mainland Chinese children born before their parents became Hong Kong permanent residents were entitled to right of abode in the City. In June 1999, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (“NPCSC”) made an interpretation of the Basic Law that effectively overruled the CFA in the case.”

“So, immediately after taking up the position, I was dragged into politics.”

Entering the Political Spotlight

Mr. Tong ran in the 2002 Election Committee Subsector by-elections in the Legal sub-sector, which was responsible for electing the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2002. He also co-founded the Art. 23 Concern Group in 2002 with former Bar Association chairmen Audrey Eu and Alan Leong, to oppose the government’s attempt to implement Art. 23 of the Basic Law, which they believed posed a threat to civil liberties and basic freedoms.

Mr. Tong entered the spotlight as a legal expert when people took to the streets in 2003 to protest against the proposed Art. 23 anti-subversion bill that was later shelved. After the 1 July protest, the group transformed into the Art. 45 Concern Group to call for universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008.

Life in LegCo

Mr. Tong says he was very reluctant to run for a seat in LegCo until he was approached one night by a LegCo member in the summer of 2004. “She encouraged me to run, indicating that she thought that it was very likely that I would win and that it would allow the pan-democrats to gain an extra seat. At the time, because of the street march, everyone had very high hopes of the pan-democrats gaining half of the votes in LegCo. If I ran and won, the pan-democrats would get 30 seats. This seemed very important to me at the time, so I ran and I won in the geographical constituency direct elections,” he says.

In March 2006, Mr. Tong and members of the Art. 45 Concern Group co-founded the Civic Party and he became a member of the party’s executive committee. In the 2008 and 2012 LegCo elections, he was re-elected to represent New Territories East.

”So that is how I got into politics, and until recently, I’ve remained here.”

Mixed Feelings but No Regrets

Mr. Tong says he has mixed feelings about his time in LegCo, but no regrets about pursuing a political career.

“I hope that I am right in thinking that although there are no tangible results that I can point to other than getting minimum wage for people in Hong Kong and successfully pushing for the competition law, which is my sole baby, I was still able to influence the political sentiment in Hong Kong a bit over the last 11 years. Even though I wasn’t able to change certain things, I hope I will be seen as positively influencing the way that certain political events turned out.”

Mr. Tong paused. As his eyes began to water, he says, “this has undeniably been one of the most difficult moments in my life, but I am scraping through, just as I have always done. I always say that I am an optimistic pessimist. I always start off being very pessimistic, but also always end up being optimistic. This outlook gives me the drive to continue to do what I believe I need to do.”

Up Next

As for his future plans, Mr. Tong says that he wants to go back to full-time practice. “I always enjoyed practising. You win cases, most of the time because reason and justice are on your side. This is not the case in LegCo. You don’t win by reason and your work has nothing to do with justice. It’s all politics.”

While Mr. Tong has professed his intention to stay away from the political limelight, he still plans to devote a considerable amount of his time to democratic causes, albeit in a slightly different capacity.

Mr. Tong recently set up Path of Democracy, a think tank dedicated to developing democracy in Hong Kong. Through Path of Democracy, Mr. Tong hopes to establish a third way or an additional avenue for the people of Hong Kong to pursue democratic reforms. “My work with Path of Democracy will mainly be to try to create the right conditions for democracy – right now I don’t think we have the right conditions. The community is extremely divided, so I want to work on that, as well as creating a more conciliatory environment where we can have more meaningful exchanges with Beijing. I also want to groom quality young people to run for office.”

And of course, that’s not all he will be doing. He will also be writing a memoir. “I’m not the sort of person who likes to have idle time. I’m a worker,” he says. “I like to have my day filled with meetings – one after another and full of things to do. I hate the idea of sitting around and twiddling my thumbs, so I always find things to do.”

Ronny Tong, SC

Ronny Tong is a Hong Kong Senior Counsel and politician. He co-founded the Civic Party and was a Legislative Councillor representing the New Territories East constituency until 22 June 2015. He attended Queen’s College, Hong Kong, obtained an LL.B. from the University of Hong Kong in 1972, where he earned 1st Class Honours and was 1st in Class. He obtained a B.C.L. with Honours from Oxford University in 1974.

He is a holder of the Simon Lee Medal in Laws (HKU, 1972); Graduate Awardee, Rotary International (1973–1974); Winter-Williams Scholar of St. Edmund Hall (Oxford University, 1972–1974). He was also awarded the Certificate of Honour, London Bar Final Examination (1st Class Honours/1st of Candidates, 1974); the Lloyd Stott Memorial Prize (1974); J.B. Montagu Pupillage Prize (1974); and the Middle Temple Certificate of Honour Prize (1974).

He is a member of Hong Kong Bar Association, the General Council of the Bar of England and the New York State Bar Association (USA). He was also the Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association from 1999–2001.


Editor, Hong Kong Lawyer
Legal Media Group
Thomson Reuters