Centrist politician Ronny Tong Ka-wah has said that Beijing is highly concerned about the “Chee-na” oath fallout and expressed concern that Beijing may take actions to “make its bottom line clear.”

The controversy surrounds two pro-independence lawmakers who referred to “China” as “Chee-na” – considered by some to be an insult – in the Legislative Council’s swearing-in session two weeks ago. The government requested an unprecedented judicial review and injunction last Tuesday in an effort to block the lawmakers from retaking their oaths. The move has led some to worry that Beijing might interpret the Basic Law if Hong Kong’s court rules against the government.

Ronny Tong. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Interpretation of the Basic Law

Tong said in an RTHK programme on Monday that he and other delegates of the Hong Kong Bar Association told Chinese officials, such as diplomat Wang Guangya and Basic Law Committee Chair Li Fei, that they did not want the Chinese government to interpret the Basic Law.

Article 158 of the Basic Law confers the power of interpreting the territory’s mini-constitution on China’s top legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC). In other words, the NPCSC’s opinions are final and legally enforceable.

An NPCSC interpretation – which has happened on four occasions since the 1997 handover – is always controversial owing to the public perception that Beijing is undermining Hong Kong’s judicial independence.

‘Potential concern’

Tong said he tried to persuade the Chinese officials that an NPCSC interpretation would not be an effective solution.

Li Fei (left) and Wang Guangya (right). File Photo: Apple Daily.

“I [told them] the issue is not that some people don’t understand the Basic Law, but that they don’t accept the Basic Law,” said Tong. “It would be pointless even if you interpret the Basic Law a hundred times. First, you cannot convince these people. Second… you could harm the entire Hong Kong society – hurting those who accept the Basic Law.”

But Tong said the officials did not appear to be convinced. “My feeling is that [they think] it is not an issue of whether people understand [the Basic Law], but that Beijing needs to make its bottom line clear.”

“This is a potential concern,” he said.

‘Can be considered later’

Tong also said that Hong Kong has a mature judicial system and that there is no need for an NPCSC interpretation. He added that an NPCSC interpretation can be considered later if the courts cannot handle the case.

Photo: HKFP.

Asked whether that means an interpretation of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution is possible if the ruling goes against the wishes of Beijing, Tong dismissed the concern and said that it is for the Court of Final Appeal to decide whether to hand the interpretation over to the NPCSC in accordance with Article 158 of the Basic Law.

The NPCSC interpreted the Basic Law on its own initiative in 2004, on the election procedures for choosing the chief executive. The Court of Final Appeal has also asked the NPCSC for an interpretation of the Basic Law in a case in 2011 relating to the principles of state immunity. Two other instances were referred to the NPCSC by the Hong Kong government.

A delegation of the Hong Kong Bar Association visited Beijing last week to meet with Chinese officials. The group’s chair Winnie Tam Wan-chi said last Thursday that Beijing “had not even thought about” interpreting the Basic Law as a way to resolve the controversy.

Tong declined to comment on whether he had met with anyone separately during his visit to Beijing with the Bar Association delegates.


Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.