26 October 2016
Representatives from four university student unions burn copies of the Basic Law during the June 4 vigil. Photo: SocREC/Facebook
Representatives from four university student unions burn copies of the Basic Law during the June 4 vigil. Photo: SocREC/Facebook

How senior democrats must view Basic Law burning protest

Is the Basic Law a sacrosanct document that cannot be criticized or opposed in any way?

Many Hong Kong people were taken aback when student leaders from four local universities burned copies of the Basic Law, the city’s constitution, during the June 4 vigil last week.

The criticism came not only from people with pro-establishment sympathies but also from some pan-democrats who felt the students went a bit beyond what was proper in protesting against Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong affairs.

By burning copies of the Basic Law, the students could be seen as rejecting the “one country, two systems” principle that ensures the high degree of autonomy the city now enjoys, several senior members of the pan-democratic camp said.

From Beijing’s point of view, their action could mean they are seeking to destroy the very foundation of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region, the city’s status since its sovereignty was transferred to China in 1997. Is that what they are trying to say?

Again, the difference of opinion between the student leaders and their senior comrades in the democracy struggle is reflected on how they perceive the action.

For the youngsters, they have no worries about taking on the Communist Party leadership in pushing their demand for a more democratic electoral framework and oppose Beijing’s intervention in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.

For the senior democrats, the youngsters’ action is too radical for comfort. They fear that it could give Beijing a reason to tighten its grip on the territory and adopt a sterner attitude in dealing with the pan-democratic camp.

After all, the Basic Law ensures that Hong Kong people will continue to enjoy the benefits of the “one country, two systems” policy for 50 years until 2047.

While that could be the most important policy set by both British and Chinese governments in the Joint Declaration regarding Hong Kong, the Basic Law, as it is now, seems to have failed to protect the city’s high degree of autonomy.

After almost 20 years of implementation, many of the promises in the Basic Law have yet to be delivered by Beijing, especially with regard to Hong Kong’s democratic development.

The current debate over the electoral framework for the 2017 chief executive election is a clear example of these unfulfilled promises.

The Basic Law guarantees that Hong Kong can set its own electoral framework for the chief executive election from 2007, which would then be submitted to National People’s Congress for approval.

But the reality is that Beijing has set a strict and detailed electoral framework for the 2017 election, which only allows Beijing loyalists to nominate and join the exercise.

The proposal, which was announced on August 31 last year, provides for a filtering system that will prevent candidates who are perceived to be unfriendly to Beijing, meaning to the Communist Party leadership, from joining the race, and deprive Hong Kong people of the right to nominate their own preferred candidates.

That framework will apply not only in the 2017 exercise but in all future chief executive elections.

And that is precisely the reason why the student leaders decided to burn copies of the Basic Law: to show that Beijing has not only failed in fulfilling the promises stated therein but that the document is subject to the interpretation and implementation by the central government, rendering it inferior to the decisions of the Communist Party leadership.

And that is why the student leaders are calling for amendments to the Basic Law: to protect the city’s autonomy and build the foundation for a truly democratic framework for Hong Kong.

The students are very much concerned about the Basic Law as it affects their future, the kind of Hong Kong that they will be living in several years and decades from now.

And as it is now, the future they see is not so bright. For the past 18 years under the Basic Law, they have witnessed how Beijing has violated its commitment to grant Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. They have seen how Beijing has intervened in Hong Kong affairs in almost all aspects, from education and political development to economic policies and infrastructure development.

All these have been violating the “one country, two systems” principle.

The youngsters expressed their anger by burning copies of the Basic Law. It was also a symbolic action to signal the next democratic movement in Hong Kong.

The senior democrats, on the other hand, think that the student leaders were being too aggressive in their action, and by showing no respect to a document that codifies Beijing’s rule in Hong Kong, they are providing the central authorities with an excuse to tighten its administration of the territory.

But the young democrats want the action as a symbol of a change in their mindset. They will no longer ask local and Beijing leaders to grant what is for the people, but will “save our Hong Kong with our own effort”.

From now on, instead of reacting to Beijing’s actions and decisions, student leaders will try their best to bring about change or break the current political reform deadlock through their own effort.

Student group Scholarism noted that when the final draft of the Basic Law was unveiled, only 24 percent of Hong Kong people supported it while 55 percent opposed it.

But Hong Kong people had no choice but to accept the document as it is one of the only two legal documents promising a high degree autonomy for Hong Kong.

Some senior democrats may be worried that the students’ action of burning copies of the Basic Law could worsen the relationship between Hong Kong and the central government, or it could intensify the debate on Hong Kong independence. 

But the fact is that the students are only trying their best to uphold the Hong Kong’s autonomy and uniqueness in the face of growing intervention from Beijing.

The senior democrats would do well to support the young democrats in their new struggle, rather than allow themselves to be instruments of Beijing in condemning the youthful activists.

The democratic camp cannot afford further disunity at this stage.

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EJ Insight writer

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