What was Beijing really up to with its Basic Law interpretation?

November 16, 2016 11:37
Since the NPCSC interpretation is set to hit CY Leung’s popularity, the move suggests that Leung has not secured Beijing’s blessing to seek a second term. Photo: CNSA

The abrupt interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law by the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) triggered a new round of political confrontation between Beijing and the pan-democrats.

Beijing decided to pre-empt the High Court's decision and issue an interpretation to stem separatism and defend national unification; the pan-democrats stood up to Beijing in order to uphold the rule of law and defend judicial independence.

At first glance, it appears both sides were acting with a high purpose but if we take a closer look, we can tell that both Beijing and the pan-democrats had their own hidden agenda.

As far as the washed-up pan-democrats are concerned, they were well aware from day one that the interpretation was a political maneuver sugar-coated as a constitutional initiative and that there was nothing they could do to stop it.

However, the reason the pan-democrats are still taking on the issue is that by putting up such a publicity stunt they could hide their incompetence and powerlessness.

Besides, the pan-democrats are so desperate to regain the spotlight and take back the leadership in the local pro-democracy movement from the post-Occupy generation that they are eager to seize the opportunity to flex their muscle.

As far as the Beijing bosses are concerned, they are also well aware that even though the so-called “831 resolution” and the suppression of the Occupy Movement have stoked increased talk of secession, separatism is far from being an imminent threat to “national unity”.

Given that, it does not take such high-profile and heavy-handed move as interpreting the Basic Law to curb it because there is simply nothing to curb.

Curbing separatism by means of interpreting the Basic Law is like trying to kill a mosquito with a large-caliber anti-aircraft gun. Obviously, that gun was actually aimed at something much larger and the mosquito was just a pretext.

There could have been indeed a hidden motive behind Beijing's decision to interpret the Basic Law.

I would say that the NPCSC interpretation could have been a show of might by Beijing to intimidate the pro-democracy camp.

Since the NPCSC interpretation is set to hit Leung Chun-ying’s popularity, the move also suggests that Beijing still has not made up its mind over its choice for the next chief executive and has not given Leung its blessing.

That might explain why Leung was not particularly excited about the interpretation. Obviously, he realized that it is still uncertain whether he would get Beijing's green light.

On the other hand, the fact that Financial Secretary John Tsang was at a loss about the details of the NPCSC interpretation beforehand shows that he is unlikely to be Beijing's favorite for the top job.

If he is indeed the favorite as many people believe, Beijing would have notified him about the details of the Basic Law interpretation beforehand.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 15

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ columnist