It was well known that Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim travels a lot in his official capacity. However, not many people were aware that the minister has actually been making trips regularly to Beijing in recent years, possibly for debriefing sessions.
It wasn’t until Bruce Lui, a former TV journalist and now a senior lecturer at the School of Communication at the Baptist University, published a newspaper article last year, accusing Ng of keeping the public in the dark about his activities, that the public got to know about an arrangement for regular Beijing meetings.
According to the article, under a mechanism established between the Education Bureau (EDB) and the State Ministry of Education, Secretary Ng would go to Beijing twice a year to hold regular meetings with the central authorities to “discuss policy issues”.
Although SAR officials have been routinely visiting Beijing and meeting with their central government counterparts over the years, it is for the first time since the handover that a bureau chief of the Hong Kong administration is asked to go to Beijing regularly and secretly meet with central government officials.
The hush-hush meetings have fueled fears that Beijing could be directly interfering in Hong Kong’s education policies or even directly giving orders to our education chief.
Given the concerns, I demanded, during an oral Q&A session in the Legco last week, that Ng explain to the public the purpose of establishing the “meeting mechanism” which has been in place for some time.
However, the reply of the EDB was equivocal as well as evasive.
While it confirmed there is such a meeting mechanism in existence, it argued that as discussions between Ng and mainland officials were held in the form of “closed-door meetings”, it is inappropriate for the EDB to unilaterally disclose either the details of the meeting mechanism or the topics of their discussions in those meetings.
Details cannot be disclosed, it said, citing the need for “respecting the other party”.
As to the questions of who proposed the setting up of the meeting mechanism in the first place, why the EDB has never made it public, and whether there are similar meeting mechanisms in place between other SAR government bureaus and the central authorities, the EDB declined to say anything.
The meeting mechanism between the EDB and Beijing, in fact, reminds me of a disturbing remark made in public two years ago by Chen Zuoer, chairman of the state-sponsored Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, that the Education Bureau in Hong Kong should be subject to the supervision of the central government.
What is really worrying about this meeting mechanism is that if Secretary Ng is really meeting with central government officials regularly not to discuss policy issues but to report on his work to his Beijing bosses, it will undoubtedly constitute an outright violation of Article 22 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that no department of the Central People’s Government should ever interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong.
The meeting mechanism may also violate Article 136 of the Basic Law, which says it is completely within the jurisdiction of the HKSAR government to formulate its own education policies.
Under the Basic Law and the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”, only the Chief Executive has to go to Beijing regularly every year to report on his or her work to our national leaders, while all chief officials of the HKSAR government only answer to the CE, and not Beijing.
Frankly, I am not one of those who have knee-jerk opposition to any form of official exchange or cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland. In fact I welcome any cross-border exchange on education issues as long as it is constructive, sincere and on equal footing.
The problem is, Beijing would be apparently and blatantly overstepping its constitutional power and violating “One Country, Two Systems” if it required Hong Kong government officials to report to it directly on their work on a regular basis. It constitutes outright interference in the city’s internal affairs and infringement of our autonomy guaranteed under the Basic Law.
As there have been growing signs in recent years that Beijing is tightening its grip on Hong Kong’s affairs and increasingly emphasizing “One Country” while belittling the “Two Systems”, I strongly urge the EDB to clarify as soon as possible why there is such a meeting mechanism in place.
The bureau needs to provide an explanation in order to allay the public’s concerns and restore confidence in the “One Country, Two Systems”.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 9
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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