Denis Chang Khen-Lee, CBE

Doctor of Laws

11 July 2005 - Orator: Professor David Clarke

Madam Chancellor: Denis Chang

Every graduation ceremony is a celebration of the achievements of another cohort of students drawn to this University from the city and its region, from across the nation and from nations across the globe. We have today the benefit of a multi-cultural and multi-national student body, a tradition that was just beginning in 1964 when Denis Chang Khen-Lee arrived in this building to study law.

Denis Chang, who has long made Hong Kong his home, was born in what is now East Malaysia and like so many at the time was educated in a British influenced system where he rapidly demonstrated a flair and skill for language. He was taught by the Christian Brothers who ran and still run schools of high standing in that region and in Hong Kong.  He took four A levels, including Latin and English Literature, and determined on a career in law. To achieve such an ambition meant seeking a University education abroad.

Denis Chang applied for the much-coveted Shell Scholarship which had no post-graduation strings attached to it. When asked by his interviewer, who happened to be a Bristol law graduate, as to why scholarships should be offered by the company to him or anybody else for that matter Denis pointedly replied: “Well, I suppose if you didn’t, some of us might just one day decide to kick you people out.”   “You’re absolutely right!” said his interviewer.  He was awarded the Scholarship.      

Madam Chancellor, in his book, Empire, Professor Niall Ferguson suggests that one of the better features of the British Empire was the willingness of its officials to offer the very best education to the brightest of its subjects even though it ensured that those so educated would rightly demand to be masters of their own affairs. No less credit, however, should go to those captains of industry and others in the private sector who were prepared to be partners in investing in higher education and in opening wide the doors of opportunity for young scholars like Denis with the will to pursue his chosen career path and the vision and ability to succeed.                  

Denis Chang chose to come to Bristol but in a fashion far removed from the aspiring undergraduate of today, who can face a huge choice of institution and type of course. For him, Bristol was his sponsor’s recommendation and that was sufficient. Aspiring immediately for a career at the Bar, Denis joined Lincoln’s Inn even before he commenced his studies at Bristol. In his formative first year, he reside in the Catholic Chaplaincy in a room between a Philosophy PhD student and a theologian specialising in the Philosopohy of religion. It is then perhaps mno surprise that his contemporaries recall him attending lectures in Philosophy as well as those in Law. He was active in the Law Club and his advocacy skills were recognised as he held the post of Master of Moots. Together with a student from Nigeria, he won for Bristol the Winston Cup in a knock-out Inter-Varsity Debating Competition. 

Bristol has remained important to him. In his busy and demanding life, he has found time to be committed to the Bristol Alumni Association in Hong Kong, some of whose members are here on this stage to-day as members of Convocation to show their support and to celebrate the occasion.   Remembering the importance of his Shell Scholarship for his own career, and the Chinese saying that “ when you drink water, think of its source”, Denis has actively supported the Association’s sponsorship of students from Hong Kong to study in Bristol.

His Bristol law degree also introduced him to what has become the central theme in his legal career – the Common Law and its fundamental principles applied in a Hong Kong and China context. In a talk in 2001, Denis Chang described himself as a battle scarred practitioner who had drunk deeply from the well-springs of that Common Law.  Many of our graduates today will have grappled with the complexities and outworking of the Rule of Law and that concept, in particular, has been at the forefront of so much of Denis Chang’s contribution to the life of Hong Kong.

Denis was called to the Bar in 1968 and, finally arriving in Hong Kong in 1969, was called to the Hong Kong bar in 1970. He had always had the sense that Hong Kong was his home. This may have been because his family, with strong roots in China, regarded it as the place to return – even before Denis had been there. His private practice flourished and he was appointed, at a relatively young age, as Queen’s Counsel in 1981. His practice spread across the property and commercial fields but he had plenty of forays elsewhere. He recalls acting for a fortune-teller who alleged defamation by a rival who had claimed he could not foretell his own death – when, of course, in fact he was very much alive. But his client did not turn up for the pre trial conference. Why? His crystal ball had told him he would win the case anyway. He did. But Denis is refusing to claim credit for it.

In the mid 1980’s, the British and Chinese Governments concluded the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong. This Treaty was based on the one country, two systems principle and led, in 1997, to Hong Kong becoming a Special Administrative Region within the People’s Republic of China. The Treaty had agreed that Hong Kong would have a high degree of autonomy and could retain its own common law based legal system for at least 50 years. For that vision to become a reality, it was necessary to draft a Basic Law for the SAR, and to find a way of continuing Hong Kong’s freedoms within that Basic Law. Denis, by then Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, was elected to the Consultative Committee assisting in the drafting by the Chinese authorities of the Basic Law to be passed by the National People’s Congress in Peking. That Consultative Committee had a hugely significant contribution to the final form of the Basic Law.

Since 1985, Denis has been studying and exploring largely unchartered territory, helping to shape the features of a developing new jurisprudence   that has Anglo-Chinese characteristics. Much of the more public aspects of this historic enterprise, including Denis’ role in it, has been extensively reported in the Hong Kong media or otherwise documented. We will however have to wait for Denis’ promised Memoirs on the more personal aspects of the tale of two systems – and on how, as the story unfolds, he has generally managed to remain cautiously optimistic, despite having  reportedly said (with due apologies to Charles Dickens) that “the mood in Hong Kong has fluctuated between Great Expectations and Bleak House”.

At the core of this unique experiment is the issue of how two legal systems, so radically different from each other, could remain separate yet co-exist within a unitary state. There had to be an interface where the two systems could meet. His work did not end with the successful conclusion and the incorporation of the Basic Law as the mini constitution of Hong Kong after 1997. Denis was the leading counsel in the first landmark case of Ng Ka Ling v Director of Immigration in 1999, successfully arguing right up to the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong for the right of abode within the SAR for persons who claimed that that right was granted to them by the Basic Law but denied by a subsequent Ordinance.

That and other related cases, which had the potential of directly affecting the rights of hundreds of thousands of people, led to a dispute over the provision of the Basic Law that gave the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong the power of ‘final adjudication’ while the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Peking is vested with the power of ‘supreme interpretation’. Madam Chancellor, no doubt the finest judical minds will enjoy finding solutions to the conundrum that this poses. But Denis has the answer. Asked to explain the difference between the two, Denis is known to have remarked that it is something his dear wife Agnes and he have practised for more than 30 years at home. Denis has the power of final adjudication whereas she has the power of supreme interpretation.

Madam Chancellor, Denis Chang has not confined his service to Hong Kong narrowly within the field of legal practice and the defence of constitutional and human rights, important though they are. From 1993-1997, he was a member of the Executive Council during the Governorship of Chris Patten, and for a longer period, Chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Council.  He was also a member of Independent Commission against Corruption Complaints Committee and was appointed to The Securities and Futures Commission at its inception.. He was awarded a CBE in 1997.

Denis Chang has published articles and contributions to both the scholarly and wider literature on the Basic Law, in both English and Chinese, including a seminal piece as long ago as 1988. He has chaired the Board of Directors and Editorial Committee of the Hong Kong Law Journal founded by his distinguished ex pupil-master Mr. Henry Litton (now a non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal since his retirement as permanent judge).

Denis is still very much in private practice, now as ‘Senior Counsel or ‘SC’, in Hong Kong without ceasing to be at the forefront of the debate that continues to champion the provisions promising future democracy in the Basic Law. These cover the ultimate election of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council by universal suffrage. Never afraid to be criticised by central authorities in Peking, but always seeking to maintain dialogue with the authorities and lawyers on the Mainland of China and earning the respect of many in the process, he rejoices in the free society secured by the Law and is tireless in campaigning to ensure the human rights and freedoms promised in the Joint Declaration and in the Basic Law are not eroded.

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Denis Chang Khen-Lee, CBE, QC, SC, JP, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.


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