Two former mainland officials on Tuesday sought to reassure Hong Kong that the central government had not run out of “patience” with it, amid renewed questions over the city’s autonomy brought on by Beijing’s move last week to disqualify four opposition local legislators.
But even so, the two officials – former Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office deputy director Feng Wei and former Basic Law Committee chairman Qiao Xiaoyang – also emphasised that people should not mistakenly view Beijing as sharing power with the Hong Kong government, maintaining that it instead merely delegated certain responsibilities to the city, while retaining full authority.
The pair also said that while the Basic Law was considered Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, it should be viewed as closely related, and subordinate, to the Chinese constitution.
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“You can see the Basic Law as a completely independent legal document, or you can see it as one under the Chinese constitution,” said Qiao, who in his former capacity advised the central government on the document, and who maintained that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) had the final say on its interpretation. “Based on your perspective, you can have extremely different understandings of the Basic Law’s requirements.”
Qiao and Feng were speaking in a panel discussion during the high-powered Basic Law 30th Anniversary Legal Summit, themed “Back to Basics”, and organised by the Department of Justice to commemorate the promulgation of the city’s mini-constitution.
Last year, Hong Kong was roiled by often violent anti-government protests triggered by a since-withdrawn extradition bill. Beijing responded by imposing a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong in June to criminalise acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with external forces, which the central government and local pro-establishment politicians had sought to blame for the unrest.
Qiao said the enactment of the law, which critics have panned as threatening Hong Kong’s core freedoms, showed Beijing’s restraint.
“Beijing repeatedly tolerated [the protests] to the level that it would tolerate no more. Historic mistakes could have been made if authorities tolerated further … and it was the central government’s responsibility to intervene,” he said.
Feng, meanwhile, noted that since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, many of the city’s major political controversies revolved around the central government.
“The central government has never underestimated the difficulty of implementing ‘one country, two systems’,” he said, referring to the governing principle under which Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy. “But the central government’s confidence in implementing the principle has never been swayed. We have also never lost our patience with Hong Kong society.”
Feng said that to understand Hong Kong’s political structure correctly, people had to respect that the city operated under an executive-led system, and that Beijing had full authority over it.
Questions over Hong Kong’s autonomy returned to the fore last week when the NPCSC issued a resolution making it possible for local officials to summarily unseat Legislative Council members on a variety of grounds without going through the city’s courts or the existing constitutionally mandated procedure for removing a lawmaker. Four opposition Legco members were immediately ousted as a result.
Also speaking on Tuesday’s panel, Maria Tam Wai-chu and Elsie Leung Oi-sie, the current and former vice-chairwoman of the Basic Law Committee, respectively, agreed with Feng that Beijing’s authority over Hong Kong was absolute.
Leung pointed to the Ng Ka-ling case in 1999, in which the NPCSC exercised its authority over the city’s top court in overturning its original ruling against the government, which removed restrictions on the right of abode of children born on the mainland with one Hong Kong parent.
The NPCSC stepped in to reverse the decision after then-Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa asked Beijing for help.
In the landmark Congo case of 2011, which centred on Hong Kong’s policy on state immunity, it was the top court itself which sought guidance from Beijing for an interpretation of the Basic Law.
In a separate session of the conference, Basic Law Committee member Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee maintained the NPCSC had the power to interpret the mini-constitution “regarding any areas at any time, as needed”.
“Its power is not confined to when it is asked by the Court of Final Appeal to do so.”
Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung
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