What Li Keqiang omitting Hong Kong principles from report may mean

NPC leader addsfuel to flames of speculation by telling Hongkongers to cautiously interpret premier's omission of core principles concerning city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 7:11am

Speculation there is a hidden meaning behind Premier Li Keqiang's omission of two of Hong Kong's constitutional principles from his maiden work report deepened yesterday as Beijing's third-in-command cryptically advised Hongkongers to "cautiously interpret" the implications of their absence.

The advice from National People's Congress leader Zhang Dejiang , Beijing's man in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, was made in a meeting with the city's 36 NPC deputies.

On Wednesday, Li omitted the phrases "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" and "high degree of autonomy" from his work report. His predecessor Wen Jiabao had included the phrases in all his 10 reports.

Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong, liaison office chief Zhang Xiaoming , said the more general "one country, two systems" principle included in the report encompassed the two other principles.

But observers see a deeper significance behind the omissions, particularly in view of Zhang Dejiang's remark and what some see as a tightening of Beijing's hold on Hong Kong's government amid governance problems, heated debates over universal suffrage, anti-mainlander protests and nostalgia for British colonialism.

NPC delegate and local lawmaker Ip Kwok-him quoted the NPC chief as saying: "Hong Kong's media have had sweeping coverage of [the omission]. This should be interpreted cautiously. Very often, to decipher something does not necessarily mean full disclosure."

Dr Li Pang-kwong of the National Association of Study on Hong Kong and Macau, a newly created high-level think tank, said the omission was "by no means coincidental".

"Changing wordings underline changing gestures," he said, noting that it came at the time of the rise to power of Li and President Xi Jinping .

"It is also a result of [Chief Executive] Leung Chun-ying's unsatisfactory governance, which fell far short of Beijing's expectations."

Understanding Beijing's attitude to Hong Kong often requires close attention to details - from examining official wordings to observing a handshake. Wen's predecessor as premier, Zhu Rongji , often skipped mention of the two phrases, although he included them in his maiden report in 1999.

Head of the Hong Kong delegation Maria Tam Wai-chu said local media had "made a fuss" about the wording, something she said was as natural as "breathing air".

But Li, director of Lingnan University's public governance programme, speculated that the wording reflected Beijing's increasingly apparent scrutiny of the Hong Kong government.

As examples of the latter, he cited recent talk about setting rules for how the chief executive should report to state leaders on performance of his duties, reiterations of Beijing's power to overrule local legislation and the central government's repeated reminders of its ultimate authority over the city.

Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, chair professor of political science at City University, said the change in wording was related to the debate about universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017.

"There is a danger that the interventions from the central authorities, which they deem legitimate, will be more frequent and deeper, if the situation in Hong Kong proves to be unsatisfactory," said Cheng, a key figure in the pro-democracy camp.

But the Hong Kong official in charge of constitutional and mainland affairs said citizens should not worry unduly.

"The [principles] will not be affected by the speech of any individual, because the Basic Law is a national law," Raymond Tam Chi-yuen said, referring to the mini-constitution.