Hong Kong’s Director of Immigration Erick Tsang will replace Patrick Nip as head of the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, according to local media citing sources. The move came amid a row over the government’s conflicting stance on the constitutional status of Beijing’s agencies in the city.

The reshuffle came a day after the incumbent Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs apologised on Facebook for causing confusion and misunderstanding following “errors” made in a statement released last Saturday.

Patrick Nip
Patrick Nip. File photo: inmediahk.net.

The statement said that Article 22 of the Basic Law – which bars departments under Beijing from interfering in the city’s internal affairs – was applicable to the liaison office, contradicting the agency’s statement last Friday.

The government issued a revised statement a few hours later to exclude mention of Article 22, while stating that agencies were authorised by Beijing to exercise “supervisory power” on major issues in Hong Kong.

The revision came under fire from pro-democracy lawmakers, who said it was a case of “overturning” the Basic Law and “kneeling down” to Beijing’s top offices. The Hong Kong Bar Association also slammed the statements as “plainly inconsistent” with what the Constitutional Affairs Bureau wrote in a Legislative Council document in 2007, as well as a comment Nip made publicly in 2018.

Nip said in the Legislative Council in June 2018 that the government believed that liaison office “will, as always, follow the laws of HKSAR in accordance with the requirement stipulated in Article 22 of the Basic Law.”

On Monday night, he apologised on Facebook: “[I] deeply regret the errors in last Saturday’s press release about the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the liaison office, and the need to issue a correction and explanation, causing confusion and misunderstanding.”

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During Tuesday’s weekly press briefing, Chief Executive Carrie Lam would not admit that the government’s stance had changed, admitting only that it had been clarified: “The knowledge of relevant government officials or offices of the Basic Law, in particular concerning the recent controversy, is perhaps not very thorough, which led to conflicting statements in documents submitted to the Legislative Council and the public… do confess that the government’s expression on this particular issue had not been clear and consistent, but it has now been clarified,” Lam added.

‘Ignorant’ interpretation

Without directly referring to Nip, pro-establishment legislators such as Regina Ip of the New People’s Party criticised government officials as being “ignorant” about the city’s mini-constitution and called for better Basic Law training for civil servants.

Director of Immigration Mr Erick Tsang Kwok-wai.
Director of Immigration Mr Erick Tsang Kwok-wai.

“Government officials from the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau couldn’t even have a correct grasp of Article 22 of the Basic Law,” Ip said on Monday.

Nip has served as the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs since July 1 in 2017. He joined the administrative service in 1986 and served in various bureaux and departments including the Chief Executive’s Office, the Information Services Department and the former Health, Welfare and Food Bureau.

Tsang was appointed Director of Immigration in April 2016, after joining the department in 1987. Nip and Tsang had led government delegations to Wuhan city in Hubei – once the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak – to evacuate stranded Hongkongers last month.

Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.