Chinese officials have defended Beijing’s interpretation of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, saying that the move helps “protect the rule of law and improve the legal system” of the autonomous territory. Critics say that the interpretation sends a chilling message to Hongkongers.

China’s top legislature, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), voted on and passed The NPCSC’s interpretation of the Basic Law Article 104 of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region with unanimous support on Monday morning. This is the fifth Basic Law’s interpretation since the 1997 handover.

The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012. Photo: WikiMedia

Details of interpretation

Article 104 of the Basic Law stipulates that lawmakers, judges, the chief executives and top officials must, “in accordance with law,” swear allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR.

Monday’s interpretation sought to define the term “in accordance with law.” It said oath-taking is a mandatory procedure for assuming public office, and it must “fulfil the statutory requirements in format and content” by “accurately, completely and solemnly” reading out phrases such as the full name of Hong Kong.

Oath-takers are not allowed to retake their pledges and will be disqualified from assuming public office if they refuse to take the oaths, according to the interpretation. “Refuse” means deliberately reading out an altered oath or reading the oath in an insincere manner.

The NPCSC also stated that the “oath administrator” has the duty to confirm that the oath-taking complies with Hong Kong law and the interpretation.

It warns that those who make a “false oath” or break their oath – which it says is legally binding – will bear “legal responsibility.”

‘Protect the rule of law’

A spokesperson for the China Liaison Office – Beijing’s organ in Hong Kong – said on Monday that the interpretation serves to fulfil Beijing’s constitutional duty, and that it is “very important, very necessary and very timely” on the basis that Hong Kong’s existing laws regarding oath-taking are incomplete and there are controversies surrounding the relevant regulations.

china liaison office emblem flag
The China Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP.

The spokesperson said that an interpretation of the Basic Law will help protect the rule of law, draw a bottom line and improve the legal system. “It will definitely gain the approval and support of the majority of Hong Kong society,” he said.

He added that the Hong Kong government cannot use “judicial independence” as an excuse to reject or condemn Beijing’s lawful right to interpret the Basic Law.

Basic Law Committee Chair Li Fei said that “some lawmakers-elect” did not take their oaths solemnly and insulted China. “The ugly act… attracted strong condemnation from Chinese people worldwide,” he said. “It will strongly hurt the country’s unity and interests if it is not dealt with seriously.”

li fei
Li Fei. Photo: Now TV screenshot.

Li said young people received “organised teaching” about Hong Kong independence, but they will understand that it is wrong later in life.

‘Chilling message’

Maya Wang, senior researcher of the NGO Human Rights Watch, told HKFP that Beijing’s move sends a “chilling message” to Hongkongers that the territory’s autonomy is “fast disappearing.”

“NPCSC’s ‘legal interpretation’ is merely a technical fig leaf for a crude political move to shut out dissent from Hong Kong’s legislature,” Wang said.

The Labour Party’s Cyd Ho said: “Hong Kong has once again been butchered. But we don’t have the right to know in advance how deep the cut is and how profound its impacts would be. All we can do is feel pain.”

basic law protest sheung wan independence
Photo: Trey Menefee.

Lawmaker James To of the Democratic Party said: “This should not have been done by the NPC. This will hurt the public’s confidence in the One Country, Two Systems policy.”

“Beijing is effectively doing the work for the local government and taking away some of its power.”

Pro-Beijing politicians such as lawmaker Priscilla Leung began showing their support for the Basic Law interpretation on Friday, when the Hong Kong government confirmed that the NPCSC will discuss interpreting the Basic Law at its current meeting. Many in the pro-Beijing camp refrained from expressing their support before the confirmation.

A protest against Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law was held on Sunday. It ended with clashes outside the China Liaison Office.

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