China’s top representative office in Hong Kong said Friday it is entitled to get involved in Hong Kong affairs and is not subject to the semi-autonomous city's constitutional restrictions that bar the Chinese government from interfering in local affairs.
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration promised Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” under the “one country, two systems” principle for at least 50 years after China resumed sovereignty in 1997. The Basic Law, the city’s post-handover mini-constitution, mandates that the mainland Chinese government cannot interfere in its affairs.
However, the China liaison office said in a strongly worded statement issued late Friday that “a high degree of autonomy is not complete autonomy.” It said Hong Kong’s right to self-govern is “authorized by the central government” and “the authorizer has supervisory powers over the authorized.”
Both the liaison office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office -- China’s top bodies overseeing the city’s affairs -- are “authorized by the central authorities to handle Hong Kong affairs,” it said. It added that it is entitled to supervise affairs in Hong Kong and make statements on issues on Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing, ranging from the “correct” implementation of the Basic Law to matters pertaining to the overall interests of society.
“This is not just responsibilities but authority granted by the [Chinese] constitution and Basic Law,” the statement said. “How else can these two bodies promote the implementation of ‘one country two systems’ in Hong Kong? The legitimacy and legality are beyond doubts.”
“They are not what is referred to in Article 22 of the Basic Law, or what is commonly understood to be ‘departments under the Central People’s Government,'” the statement said.
Article 22 states that “no department” of the Chinese central and local governments “may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.”
The statement from the liaison office came a couple of days after its new chief, Luo Huining, appointed in January, told Hong Kong to urgently enact national security legislation to tackle what he called radical violence, foreign interference and pro-independence forces in the city, apparently referring to the monthslong, sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations sparked by a controversial extradition bill in June last year.
Both the liaison office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office had changed heads early this year, with political analysts saying the gesture indicated China’s tighter control over Hong Kong.
This week, pro-democracy lawmakers accused the Chinese government of "blatant intervention" and violation of Article 22 of the Basic Law after the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said some of them committed “misconduct in public office” for delaying bills, failing to appoint a House committee chairman and paralyzing the legislature by filibustering.
The lawmakers who made such allegations were “deliberately distorting the Basic Law” and “intentionally misleading public opinion,” the liaison office said.
The office said lawmakers pledged allegiance to the Chinese and Hong Kong governments when they took their oaths of office, so their “loyalty to the country is a necessary requirement.”
China law expert Professor Jerome Cohen at New York University said China’s statement is “astounding and incendiary” and “collapses the whole one country two systems edifice that was constructed over so many years since the Joint Declaration.”
Alvin Cheung, a legal scholar specializing in Hong Kong issues at New York University's U.S.-Asia Law Institute, said the move shows that “Beijing sees itself being in a position of such strength that it can abandon even the pretense of abiding by the Basic Law,” even though China has already been interfering with Hong Kong affairs for years.
“It suggests repression will intensify further -- expect a concerted attempt to railroad national security legislation through the legislature before the [September legislative] elections, as well as continued systematic attempts to remove politicians and activists from civic life,” he said.
Michael Davis, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and former law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said, “This sort of aggressive language is totally inappropriate and will just result in further pushback from civil society in Hong Kong.”
He said “it is not news” that the liaison office comments on Hong Kong politics, and it is widely known that they work behind the scenes to promote pro-China politicians they want to win in legislative and local council elections and also try to direct the Hong Kong leadership on critical decisions, as well as influence the courts.
“This fear that Hong Kong’s autonomy will be lost, along with it the rule of law, is what has driven the many protests in Hong Kong and international concern,” he said.