Beijing's comments on HK court decision could signal direct intervention by mainland, say experts

Demonstrators raise their hands as they take to the streets during a protest at the Central District in Hong Kong, on Nov 15, 2019.
Demonstrators raise their hands as they take to the streets during a protest at the Central District in Hong Kong, on Nov 15, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - China has firmly rejected the Hong Kong High Court's decision to overturn a controversial mask ban aimed at quelling violent protests, prompting experts to say the central government could soon act to ensure its constitutional authority over Hong Kong is not challenged.

China's Parliament and Cabinet both issued statements early on Tuesday (Nov 19) morning that the ruling challenged the authority of both the Hong Kong authorities and the central government.

The response came a day after the city's High Court ruled that the mask ban imposed by the Hong Kong government last month was unconstitutional.

Another senior Chinese official also hinted that the central government could make changes to the "one country, two systems" model under which Hong Kong is granted a high degree of autonomy, if things continue to "go wrong".

Hong Kong has been grappling with more than five months of unrest, initially sparked by a since-withdrawn extradition Bill. This escalated last week when protesters holed themselves up in universities.

On Tuesday, the National People's Congress' (NPC) Legislative Affairs Commission, in a statement, expressed "serious concern" and "strong dissatisfaction", saying that the High Court judgment has seriously weakened the authority of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her administration.

"Whether the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region comply with the Basic Law of Hong Kong can only be judged and decided by the Standing Committee of the NPC. No other authority has the right to make judgments and decisions," said the commission's spokesman, adding that it was studying suggestions by its members.

The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under China's Cabinet said in a separate statement that the judgment "openly challenges" the authority of the NPC and would create "serious negative socio-political influences".

Under Article 158 of Hong Kong's Basic Law - the region's mini-Constitution - the NPC's Standing Committee is vested with the authority to interpret the Basic Law. Hong Kong's courts can be authorised to also interpret the Law while adjudicating cases, but this is ring-fenced "within the limits of the autonomy of the Region".

 
 

Experts said this means the NPC has ultimate authority in the interpretation of the Basic Law.

"Some people are worried that the statement made by Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC is interfering in Hong Kong's judicial independence, but... the power to interpret the law lies with the NPC. It's very clear," said Professor Xie Chuntao, vice-president of the Central Party School, which trains top communist officials.

Prof Lau Siu Kai, a top China adviser on Hong Kong policy, said the NPC could come up with a decision that says the ordinance invoked for the mask ban - which was ruled partially unconstitutional - conforms with the Basic Law.

"I expect the Standing Committee to act very soon... Beijing is now determined to use the powers that belong to the central government to make sure that national security is safeguarded and that 'one country two systems' is comprehensively and accurately implemented," he said.

Beijing's statements have come as a further sign of the mainland's increasingly hard line approach.


Protesters who need medical attention leaving Hong Kong Polytechnic University's campus, on Nov 19, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said Beijing "could not even wait" for the city's government to appeal against the court decision before issuing its statements.

"It tells you that they are quite determined to overpower Hong Kong's judicial system," she said.

Hong Kong legal expert Willy Fu said the most appropriate course of action would be for the city government to appeal the decision with the Court of Final Appeal, the highest judicial authority in the city.

 
 

"This will be more acceptable by the people of Hong Kong, but the Court should ask the NPC Standing Committee to make an interpretation," said Dr Fu, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation.

Meanwhile, Mrs Lam urged police to peacefully resolve the stand-off at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where protesters have barricaded themselves.

"We're extremely worried about the dangerous situation in the campus," she said in a briefing on Tuesday morning.

The United States and European Union also urged restraint on all sides. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Monday called on Mrs Lam to allow an independent probe of protest incidents - a key protest demand.

Asked at a briefing whether Beijing would make changes to the "one country, two systems" framework, Prof Xie hinted that this could be the case if things "go wrong".

"A good system should remain unchanged, but if a system is not good, we may make changes," he said.