21 April 2019
Li Keqiang addresses a news conference after the conclusion of the NPC session in Beijing on March 15. His reference to the Chinese Constitution in relation to comments made on Hong Kong has sparked an intense debate. Photo: Reuters
Li Keqiang addresses a news conference after the conclusion of the NPC session in Beijing on March 15. His reference to the Chinese Constitution in relation to comments made on Hong Kong has sparked an intense debate. Photo: Reuters

Why Li was wrong in linking the Constitution to HK

At a news conference last Sunday following the conclusion of the National People’s Congress session, Premier Li Keqiang reiterated that Beijing will strictly comply with the Chinese Constitution as well as the Basic Law in dealing with Hong Kong affairs.

His remarks immediately sparked heated discussion within Hong Kong. Some so-called “patriots” said the 1982 Constitution must be introduced to Hong Kong, echoing comments made previously in reference to a national security law.

Some other leftists simply repeated the idea that “the Constitution applies to Hong Kong as always” and that “Hong Kong people must abide by the Constitution”.

In fact, these pro-Beijing loyalists have all got it wrong.

Although there is some connection between the legal framework set under the Basic Law and the 1982 Constitution, the 1982 Constitution does not apply to Hong Kong — it never did, and it never will as long as Beijing sticks to the Basic Law faithfully.

At the March 15 press conference, Li reassured that ‘One Country Two Systems’, ‘Hong Kong People Governing Hong Kong’, ‘Macau People Governing Macau’ and ‘A High Degree of Autonomy’ are the basic policies of the Chinese government.

He went on to say that central authorities must strictly comply with the Constitution and the Basic Law with regard to Hong Kong affairs, because “the principle of One Country Two Systems has been written into the Constitution and the Basic Law, which together form the constitutional foundation of the Special Administrative Region, and the Basic Law also has laid down the system that is implemented in the SAR.”

In fact when Li visited Hong Kong in his capacity as the Vice-Premier back in August 2011, he didn’t mention “Constitution” in his speech, nor did predecessors Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who both only repeated that “Beijing must strictly comply with the Basic Law in Hong Kong affairs”.

Li’s new reference to the Constitution is in fact in line with Party chief Xi Jinping’s “new normal”. In his speech celebrating the 15th anniversary of Macau’s return to China last December, Xi said the “order laid down by the Constitution and the Basic Law must be respected”.

In fact after the 18th CPC Central Committee Conference, making new references and coining new slogans have become the unique characteristics of the current regime as it sought to differentiate itself from the previous administration.

That is the reason why Premier Li deliberately mentioned the 1982 Constitution earlier this month at the post-NPC news conference.

So what is the significance of mentioning the 1982 Constitution?

On one hand, what party General Secretary Xi and Premier Li did was to simply emphasize the constitutional foundation and order on which the SARs were founded and the “One Country Two Systems” is implemented.

To a certain extent, such constitutional foundation can be traced back to the 1982 Constitution, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the Constitution will be implemented in Hong Kong. The fact that the Constitution has a higher legal status than the Basic Law doesn’t mean the Constitution is applicable to the SAR.

Under Article 18 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong citizens have the obligation to comply with the Basic Law and the existing laws in Hong Kong, but that doesn’t include China’s 1982 Constitution.

In fact Premier Li was not accurate in saying that the “One Country Two Systems” had been written into the Constitution, because neither the term “HKSAR” nor “One Country Two Systems” can be found throughout the clauses of the 1982 Constitution.

Those so-called legal experts or “patriots” who argue that the Constitution also applies to Hong Kong are either completely ignorant or too lazy to do their homework.

The 1982 Constitution was passed and announced on December 4, 1982, long before Beijing publicly proclaimed that it would reclaim the sovereignty of Hong Kong.

The term “One Country Two Systems” hadn’t officially existed in any legal document until the Basic Law was announced in April 1990. Therefore, it is impossible for the 1982 Constitution to include the term “One Country Two Systems”, and it would be even more absurd to claim that the 1982 Constitution laid down the system framework for the HKSAR.

The sustainability of the “One Country Two Systems” relies on the continued application of the Basic Law. Any politically motivated attempt to tweak the Basic Law and blur the boundary between the two systems is likely to threaten our current political landscape and generate public discontent.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 19. [Chinese version 中文版]

Translation by Alan Lee

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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