Former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing is one of only a few post-handover Hong Kong politicians who have earned respect on both sides of the city’s increasingly hostile political divide.

Among all the shoe-shining, boot-licking, kowtowing Beijing lackeys who have lobotomised our political discourse over the past 21 years, he stands out as a voice of reason and moderation, even to those who disagree with his unswerving support of a central government whose governing principles do not align with those of many Hongkongers.

How then to explain what recently prompted this 71-year-old erstwhile exemplar of temperance and reason to lose his mind?

Jasper Tsang. Photo: Facebook/Jasper Tsang.

A loss of faculties, at least temporarily, seems the only way to understand how and why Tsang, in his newfound role as convener of the think-tank Hong Kong Vision, would propose amending the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, to include an article spelling out the functions and responsibilities of the central government’s liaison office, located in Sai Wan.

Indeed, the charge and commission of the liaison office are already clearly addressed by the Basic Law, whose Article 22 stipulates that no central government department or division “may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own.” In other words, keep out of Hong Kong’s internal affairs.

Yet, according to Tsang’s scatty argument, unlike Beijing’s foreign affairs ministry and the People’s Liberation Army—whose roles and operations in the city are plainly defined by the Basic Law—the remit of the liaison office, which did not exist at the time of the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, remains unclear.

Tsang, the founder and former chairman of Hong Kong’s biggest and wealthiest political party, the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), further argues that, since the liaison office was established in Hong Kong and not on the mainland, it does not qualify as a central government agency and thus is exempt from the stipulations of Article 22.

And, yes, that is a crazy, mad, bonkers thing for anyone to say—especially someone once considered worthy to be Hong Kong’s chief executive—as well as for any think-tank deserving of the name to endorse.

The reaction to the proposal from pan-democrats was immediate, predictable and unanimous: No way!

Demonstrators carry a banner saying “China Liaison Office get out” on July 1, 2017. Photo: Citizen News.

But even pro-Beijing politicos, including DAB members, have given the idea the cold shoulder. Not that they wouldn’t welcome a constitutional amendment giving legal status to the usurpation of local power and authority by the liaison office that has already largely taken place.

But they know there would be hell to pay in the Legco chamber if they tried to pull off such a constitutional stunt.

The heady days when 500,000 Hongkongers would hit the streets in protest—as they did back in 2003 to block proposed national security legislation that they feared could turn their city into a police state—may well be behind us following the failure of the Occupy movement and the subsequent ouster of pan-democrats from Legco.

A sense of protest fatigue has definitely befallen the city in recent years, much to the liking of the central government.

That’s why liaison office director Wang Zhimin has made it clear that he expects the Hong Kong government to disregard the massive 2003 protest and enact a tough national security law before Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s five-year term ends in 2022.

Although Lam is clearly nervous about this prospect, what Wang wants Wang gets in today’s Hong Kong. But try amending the Basic Law to transform the liaison office in Sai Wan into the Zhongnanhai of Hong Kong and see what happens. That might prove just the spark that the pan-dems need to reignite opposition to Beijing’s takeover of a city that was promised “a high degree of autonomy” for at least 50 years after the handover. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam and China Liaison Office Director Wang Zhimin. Photo: GovHK.

So, of course, Tsang’s proposal is dead on arrival. After all, the liaison office has already virtually become the de facto centre of power in Hong Kong; there’s no need for Chinese leaders to flaunt their triumph with an amendment to the Basic Law that would contradict the very constitution it is amending, while at the time risk re-energising the opposition.

An unwritten but well-understood constitutional revision has been with us for years: when national interests and the ultimate authority of the Chinese Communist Party are at stake, common law be damned. Do as the central government says.

On second thought, perhaps that was the whole point of the doomed proposal by Tsang and his think-tank—to remind us of this sobering fact.

Not so crazy after all.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.