Hong Kong is free to discuss independence but we can’t go beyond that, Woo Kwok-hing says

Woo Kwok-hing takes firm stand on sovereignty issue and says calls for the city to break from mainland China breach the Basic Law

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 9:39am

The retired judge running for the city’s top political office has laid out his position on Hong Kong’s independence, declaring that Hongkongers are free to discuss the issue but should not organise activities pushing for it as that would violate the Basic Law.

Woo Kwok-hing’s openness to at least talk about the sensitive topic of sovereignty sets him apart from potential rivals in next year’s chief executive election, including incumbent Leung Chun-ying.

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post on Monday, the former vice-president of the Court of Appeal also said if he were the chief executive he would not have ordered police to fire tear gas at Occupy Central protesters. Nor would he have asked candidates running for the legislature to sign a controversial document to uphold the Basic Law.

Watch: Woo Kwok-hing’s live Q&A with political reporter Joyce Ng

Retired judge pulls no punches as he launches bid for Hong Kong’s top job

Woo made clear advocating Hong Kong independence went against Article 1 of the Basic Law, which states that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.

But he said there would need to be evidence differentiating the actions of those advocating Hong Kong independence from those merely discussing it.

“If there is a conference to discuss whether Hong Kong should go independent, there are views for and against it and whether Hong Kong people are Chinese. All can be talked about,” Woo said.

“We have freedom of expression, which should be maintained in Hong Kong. If you go beyond that, you say let’s organise and do something harmful to the government and the People’s Liberation Army, it’s a risk that you have to take.”

The chief executive has said that promoting the city’s separation from mainland China was “absolutely not a matter of free speech”.

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Woo shocked the city last week when he became the first person to declare his intention to enter the chief executive race. His surprise announcement triggered a reaction among other potential contenders – Leung, executive and legislative councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah – who pummelled one another while refraining from stating their candidacy.

Woo also puzzled many as he had no clear backers in sight, nor a potential cabinet team or policy platform.

In the interview, while he was in favour of freedom to discuss independence, Woo made clear he was against it, just as he questioned the meaning of self-determination being advocated by several newly elected lawmakers.

If it meant Hong Kong people enjoying a high degree of autonomy and determining issues in accordance with local people’s interests, he said this was part of “one country, two systems”.

But independence was “not allowable” and contravened the constitution, he said.

“As an older man, I must say that’s impractical altogether. How about if you have no water to drink, if the central government does not sell you water? If they don’t allow exports of poultry? How much do you have to pay for a pork chop or a deep frozen hand of chicken?”

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Of the Occupy protests in 2014, Woo said he was not a supporter of civil disobedience because it breached the law. If he had been in charge, he said he would have gone to Beijing to find a way out of the political reform deadlock in order to prevent the 79-day protests.

Rather than taking to the streets, he suggested: “Change the public assembly law and summary offence ordinances. That will be fine. The government may build several structures for your demonstration.”

Woo also touched on the thorny topic of the role of Beijing’s liaison office. He said if an official from the office said the chief executive was transcendent in Hong Kong, that was “not good” as Article 25 of the Basic Law stated clearly everyone was equal before the law. Office chief Zhang Xiaoming made the comment last year.

“You misinterpret the law,” he said. There is no room for interpretation.”

On his election chances, Woo said he was hopeful that subsectors in the 1,200-strong Election Committee dominated by individual voters, like legal and eduction, would support him. He would be disappointed if the legal subsector did not nominate him.