China's top legislative body issued a ruling Monday that would effectively bar two Hong Kong legislators from taking office, intervening before the island-city's own judicial system has finished considering the case.
The two legally elected lawmakers were initially prevented from assuming their positions when they used anti-China insults during their oath-taking ceremony, and Beijing’s ruling would prevent them from having a second chance at saying their vows. Since Hong Kong was handed back from British rule in 1997, the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) has stepped in four times to interpret the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution. However, this is the first time it has done so in an effort to preempt a case still under consideration in Hong Kong courts.
The move by mainland China is the latest chapter in an ongoing tussle between Beijing and Hong Kongers who worry that the city’s relative autonomy, protected until 2047 under the handover agreement, is already being eroded. Many analysts see this latest effort to contain any pro-independence sentiment as likely to instead fuel those concerns.
“Some people said the National People’s Congress should restrain itself from using all its power,” Li Fei, a deputy secretary general of the NPCSC, told reporters, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, “but we say that power has to be used, this is our responsibility ... when Hong Kong’s fundamental interest is in jeopardy, and when the baselines of ‘one country, two systems’ are at stake, the NPCSC has to exercise its power.”
Interpretation of the idea of “one country, two systems,” enshrined in the 1997 handover from Britain, lies at the core of the disagreements. Specifically the Basic Law, which provides for judicial independence, appears to some to be under threat.
In advance of Beijing’s anticipated announcement, protests swept through Hong Kong on Sunday night, echoing a pro-democracy movement that brought the city to a standstill for weeks on end in 2014.
"This incident shows us the Basic Law is a handicapped legal document and the so-called mini-constitution can be amended and controlled by the Chinese Communist Party at will," Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the 2014 protests, told Reuters.
The actions of the two legislators themselves in modifying their oaths were intended to oppose what some regard as meddling by Beijing. They displayed a flag bearing the words “Hong Kong is not China” and spoke of the “Hong Kong nation.”
The ruling of the NPCSC, laying down its opinion as the case was already being heard in Hong Kong’s courts, is likely to be seen by many as a further effort to reduce the city’s autonomy. Yet Beijing walks a fine line, determined to countenance no serious talk of independence lest it encourage other restive regions.
As the state news agency, Xinhua, reported, “the interpretation aims to warn ‘pro-independence’ people that Hong Kong is an indispensable part of China, and ‘Hong Kong independence’ will never happen in any circumstances.”
It is now for Hong Kong’s courts to take into account the words of the NPCSC as they weigh their own decision on the case. But whatever happens in this particular instance, another hurdle looms on Hong Kong’s horizon: next year’s election of the city's chief executive will be overseen by Beijing every step of the way.
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.