Chief executive contender John Tsang Chun-wah has backtracked on his position to enact the controversial Article 23 national security law in Hong Kong by 2020, citing the complicated nature of the enactment process.

In a Commercial Radio interview on Sunday, Tsang also said that he would kick-start consultation for political reform to achieve universal suffrage. However, he reiterated that Beijing’s “831 decision” in 2014 – which states that leadership candidates must first be vetted – was legally binding.

John Tsang
John Tsang. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Tsang said he would simultaneously kick-start the process to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law and consultation on political reform. However, contrary to his comments at a press conference last week, he said he was not hopeful that the security law could be implemented before 2020.

“I will enact Article 23 as soon as possible after I take office, but the process will be long, because there are many steps. So realistically, the process will take longer than that for political reform. It will happen after the political reform,” he said.

In 2003, an attempt to enact Article 23 failed following mass protests.

Political reform

On the topic of political reform, Tsang said that he would include all Hongkongers in the consultation. “During this consultation, we will not place any prerequisite conditions. Everyone can voice their opinions.”

He then said that Beijing’s decision to vet candidates through a nomination committee was legally-binding: “This is something we can’t escape from.”

However, he said that once a consensus is reached, he would accurately relay it to Beijing. “I believe that after hearing all these opinions, Beijing will be able to make an accurate judgement,” he added.

Article 23 demonstration
Protest against Article 23 on July 1, 2003.

Earlier, former financial secretary Tsang was criticised by pro-democracy lawmakers for his stance to enact Article 23 by 2020.

Last Monday, Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu of the Civic Party told reporters that achieving universal suffrage for both the chief executive and the legislature was a prerequisite for discussing the security law.

Wu Chi-wai of the Democratic Party added that if Tsang failed to convince Hong Kong people on either security legislation or political reform, it would be a “no-win situation” for both the One Country, Two Systems policy and Hong Kong society in general.

Democratic Party endorsement

On Sunday afternoon, Tsang met electors from the pro-democracy camp for the first time since he announced his campaign, holding a closed-door meeting with the Democratic Party.

Afterwards, party chairman Wu told reporters that Tsang was one of two candidates that his party was “actively considering” to nominate as chief executive.

On Tsang’s new position to kick-start political reform before enacting Article 23, Wu said that Tsang “is trying very hard to find a point of equilibrium… this point has to be approved by the Central Government.”

John Tsang Chun Wah Democratic Party Wu Chi-wai
John Tsang with the Democratic Party. Photo: NowTV screenshot.

Article 23 timeframe

The other chief executive candidate that the Democratic Party says it would consider nominating is Woo Kwok-hing. The retired judge told reporters on Sunday that he hoped to enact Article 23 before 2019, on the condition that the question of political reform is resolved first.

Fellow candidate Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said in a press conference on Sunday that she has “no timeframe” for the implementation of Article 23. As secretary for security 14 years ago, she was responsible for the botched attempt to enact the security law.

Former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who is rumoured to be backed by Beijing in her chief executive bid, has not yet clearly stated her intentions with regards to either Article 23 or political reform.

The chief executive election takes place on March 26. Only the 1,200 members of the Election Committee are able to nominate and vote for candidates.

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.