21 October 2018
Many believe Xi Jinping’s 2010 comments about putting more emphasis on national unity and security marked a turning point in Beijing’s attitude toward the enactment of Article 23. Photo: Reuters
Many believe Xi Jinping’s 2010 comments about putting more emphasis on national unity and security marked a turning point in Beijing’s attitude toward the enactment of Article 23. Photo: Reuters

Achieving universal suffrage versus enacting Article 23

Enacting Article 23 of the Basic Law has proven to be a tough nut to crack for various Hong Kong chief executives since 1997.

After Tung Chee-hwa’s attempt to legislate Article 23 ended in disaster in 2003, his successor, Donald Tsang, refrained from touching on the issue throughout his term in office despite saying Hong Kong was under a constitutional obligation to enact it. He said the issue could be dealt with again in the future.

Beijing seemed to allow Donald Tsang to shelve the measure in order to avoid reigniting controversy.

However, Beijing’s tolerant stance began to change in 2009 when Macau passed its own law to enact Article 23 of its own Basic Law.

Since then, the enactment of Article 23 in Hong Kong has been back on Beijing’s agenda.

In 2010, during the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, then Vice President Xi Jin-ping told delegates from Hong Kong that it was time for the Hong Kong people to form a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the Basic Law and to put more emphasis on national unity and security rather than merely focusing on “a high degree of autonomy”.

Many believed Xi’s words signified a fundamental change of attitude toward the enactment of Article 23.

Almost immediately after Leung Chun-ying assumed office as chief executive in 2012, his cabinet was engulfed by endless scandals.

With his hands full, Leung simply had no time nor energy to relaunch legislation for Article 23.

Things took a nasty turn when the oath-taking saga involving the Youngspiration duo sparked a firestorm of controversy and led to the intervention of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

As a result, the debate over when the Hong Kong government should relaunch Article 23 legislation suddenly got a new lease on life.

At a press conference, Leung said the need to enact Article 23 had become “very real” as Hong Kong and the entire nation were facing the imminent threat of separatism.

Even though Leung later withdrew from next year’s chief executive race, it did not stop the timetable for enacting Article 23 from becoming a legitimate campaign theme in the upcoming election, prompting candidates to spell out their stance on the highly polarizing issue.

Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, who announced his candidacy in November, said the next government should not press ahead with Article 23 before universal suffrage is achieved. 

In the meantime, another declared candidate, Regina Ip, made it clear that legislating Article 23 will be given priority once she is elected.

However, both of them regard the democratization of Hong Kong and enactment of Article 23 as two sides of the same coin.

They believe only a freely elected government will have enough credibility to bring back the issue and assure the people of Hong Kong that their civil rights and freedoms will not be compromised in the course of enacting Article 23.

In 2010, I wrote that the best timing for enacting Article 23 would be during the five-year term of the chief executive starting in 2017.

One precondition for that is that the new chief executive in 2017 must be elected by universal suffrage with a clear public mandate.

I also urged the administration to summon a broadly represented independent consultation commission to re-scrutinize the bill submitted by Tung’s administration in 2003 to study the experience of Macau’s enactment of Article 23, and to facilitate public discussions, so that it can advise the new administration coming into office in 2017 on how to relaunch the legislation initiative properly.

Even though the 2017 CE election will remain a small circle election, I stick to my initial suggestion that the next government set up a preparatory commission  to help society find common ground on the issue.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 21

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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