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Basic Law

Top National People’s Congress body unites on need for interpretation on Hong Kong oaths

Basic Law Committee member Maria Tam says ruling could set out “format and conduct” for lawmakers in taking their oaths and criteria for Legco disqualification

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 November, 2016, 11:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 10:59am

Beijing’s top legislators have “unanimously agreed” on an intervention into Hong Kong’s oath-taking controversy to safeguard the city’s stability, it was announced by state TV on Saturday night, after it emerged they may set out the “format and conduct” for lawmakers to take their oaths and criteria for disqualification.

The Xinhua news agency also revealed that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee ruling would “point out the direction in which problems arising from the Legislative Council election” should be handled, in an apparent reference to a controversial confirmation form that was introduced shortly before nominations started to screen out pro-independence activists.

Basic Law Committee vice-chairwoman Elsie Leung Oi-sie said the intervention was “necessary” because Beijing had to safeguard national sovereignty and unity and be “fair” to Tibet and Xinjiang when their legislators were forbidden from spreading separatist ideas.

“Pro-independence ideas have been around in Hong Kong for some time and people are still free to talk about it,” she said. “But if Hong Kong lawmakers can spread independence thoughts in the Legislative Council, does this mean deputies to the Xinjiang People’s Congress can do that too? ... How can Beijing explain to Xinjiang and Tibet deputies?”

Leung spoke as the Standing Committee finished scrutinising a draft interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law, which relates to the oaths taken by lawmakers. Controversy erupted after two localists used derogatory language about China when they took their oaths. A finalised interpretation is set to be endorsed by the body on Monday.

Five Hong Kong deputies expressed their opinion in the meeting, with broadcaster CCTV reporting that those attending “generally agreed” that the interpretation would be “timely and necessary”.

A Hong Kong court is yet to deliver its judgment after hearing arguments in the case in which the government is seeking to disqualify Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching.

Article 104 states that lawmakers must take the oath to uphold the Basic Law and swear allegiance to Hong Kong as part of China “in accordance with the law”.

The Oaths and Declarations Ordinance says a lawmaker will be disqualified if he “declines or neglects” to take the oath.

Leung expected the interpretation to clarify the meaning of the words “in accordance with the law”, “uphold” and “allegiance” and state that lawmakers who were not genuine and disagreed with the content of the oath would be disqualified.

The ruling could also explain the powers of the person administering the oath, she said.

She added that Beijing decided an interpretation should be made because “if the court rules against the legislative intent and the Standing Committee needs to reverse it, the impact will be even bigger”.

Another Basic Law Committee member, Maria Tam Wai-chu, revealed that the objective of the interpretation was to make it clear that lawmakers could only take office if their oath was legal and valid.

“There could be rules on the format and conduct of the oath-taking, and there will be rules on what will happen if a lawmaker cannot take the oath in a legal and valid manner,” she said.

Critics say the intervention could destroy the city’s judicial independence and rule of law. Retired judge and chief executive hopeful Woo Kwok-hing also said Beijing’s intervention in the court case “would not look good”.

However, a front-page commentary in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily argued that Beijing’s intervention was “timely” and “very important” because the lawmakers who insulted the country had “seriously hit the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems’,” and endangered national unity and territorial integrity.

On a similar note, Tam said the interpretation “could provide the foundation for how people consider” Hong Kong independence.

Asked if she was suggesting that Beijing was considering interpreting more Basic Law articles to guard against Hong Kong independence, Tam said she “would not answer speculative questions”.

Separately, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, a possible candidate in the leadership race next March, said the interpretation issue would have “little impact” on the city’s rule of law ­­­– pre-empting Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who had said he would comment only after the official ruling was handed down.

“Interpreting the Basic Law has been part of our legal system,” Tsang said. “The oath-taking is a serious matter concerning national sovereignty and the [pair] have crossed the central government’s bottom line.”