Hong Kong government capitulates to Beijing office

April 20, 2020 11:27
Photo: RTHK

Hong Kong’s promised “high degree of autonomy” shrank visibly over a tumultuous weekend as Beijing’s representative office claimed it was not subject to the Basic Law’s stricture on noninterference in the special administrative region’s internal affairs and the Hong Kong administration ended up repeatedly reversing itself until finally agreeing with the office’s own definition of its position.

The politically charged week began with two Chinese governmental units – the cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) in Beijing and the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong – issuing statements condemning pan-democratic legislators for filibustering to prevent the election of a chairman of the all-member House Committee.

The Beijing-based office issued a one-paragraph statement in which it accused opposition legislators of paralyzing the Legislative Council and said their actions violated their oath of office and might constitute “misconduct in public office.” These are serious charges and recall Beijing’s 2016 interpretation of the oath-taking provision of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which resulted in the disqualification of six pro-democracy legislators.

The Liaison Office, too, denounced pan-democratic legislators for “malicious filibustering” and especially Dennis Kwok of the Civic Party, who has been chairing the committee for the election of a new chairman.

Mr Kwok said that everything he did was consistent with the legislature’s rules. Pan-democrats argued that the election of a committee chairman was a Hong Kong internal affair and the Liaison Office should not interfere, as stipulated in Article 22 of the Basic Law. This provides that “No department of the Central People’s Government … may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this law.”

On Friday, despite Beijing’s pressure, the House Committee held a stormy session – its 15th attempt – but again failed to elect a new chairman.

That added fuel to the fire. That day, the Liaison Office asserted that the Chinese government, after delegating a high degree of autonomy to Hong Kong, retained the right to supervise the use of that autonomy. “The authorizing party has the right to supervise the authorized party,” the office said.

The Liaison Office asserted that it and the HKMAO do not fall under Article 22 but are agencies authorized by the central government to deal with Hong Kong affairs, including holding the power of supervision.

It asserted the right to represent the central government in such matters as relations between the central authorities and Hong Kong, the proper implementation of the Basic Law, the normal operation of the political system and the overall interests of society. In other words, it made a huge claim to power in Hong Kong.

The following morning came the explosive news that the police arrested 15 of the most highly respected pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, including Martin Lee, the 81-year-old doyen of the democracy movement, now the most senior member of the Hong Kong bar, and entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, financial supporter of democratic causes and founder of the Apple Daily.

They, and 13 others, many former legislators, were charged with “organizing and participating in unlawful assemblies” on various days during the months-long protests in 2019. All were released on bail, with a hearing set for next month.

But the most dramatic moments were played out later that weekend, when the Hong Kong government responded to media enquiries about the Liaison Office’s status. The public broadcaster RTHK reported that the government “fully reversed its position in a series of apparently self-contradictory statements” from Saturday to Sunday morning.

“Its original statement issued on Saturday said Beijing's liaison office and its staff are required to abide by the laws of Hong Kong, as set out in Article 22 of the Basic Law…,” RTHK report began.

“A subsequent statement issued a few hours after the original still included a line saying the liaison office and its personnel must abide by Hong Kong law and the Basic Law, but gone was any mention of Article 22 specifically.

“The final statement from the Hong Kong government echoes a release by the liaison office itself, which said that along with the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, it is not subject to the restrictions stated in Article 22 that bar central government departments from interfering in local affairs.”

So, the government ostensibly set up to run a highly autonomous Hong Kong ended up agreeing that Beijing’s office enjoys a virtually unrestricted right to intervene in local affairs. If that office is going to run Hong Kong, what is left for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to do besides carrying out orders? Ultimately, that may be the sad reality of “one country, two systems.”

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.