Thirty of the 36 local deputies to the National People's Congress signed a petition urging an interpretation of the Basic Law to address the swelling number of mainlanders giving birth in Hong Kong.
The petition came after senior government officials in the city rejected the suggestion of Elsie Leung Oi-sie, vice-chairwoman of the Basic Law committee under the NPC's Standing Committee, that the chief executive should submit a report to the NPC, the mainland's highest state body, asking for an interpretation.
The clarification could come from Hong Kong or Beijing, said Maria Tam Wai-chu, one of those who signed the petition, to be submitted to the committee. 'Whoever applies for the interpretation is welcome.'
The signatories included Executive Council members Cheng Yiu-tong and Laura Cha Shih May-lung.
At the centre of the debate is granting permanent residency to children born in Hong Kong to mainland parents, many of whom do not have a right of abode. Some critics say the tide of mainland mothers giving birth in the city puts a strain on medical and educational services.
In a landmark case, the Court of Final Appeal ruled in 2001 that mainland baby Chong Fung-yuen, who was born in Hong Kong, had the right of abode, regardless of her parents' immigration status.
The ruling contradicted the NPC's 1999 interpretation of the Basic Law that denied permanent residency to children born outside the city before either parent was a permanent resident. The city government in 2002 amended the immigration ordinance to bring it into line with the court's judgment.
'The Court of Final Appeal ruling is against the Basic Law,' said Tam.
But cosignatory Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a Standing Committee member, said that instead of a new interpretation, the Hong Kong government could ask for a reiteration of the NPC's reading of the right of abode rules. 'The government could approach the Standing Committee to explain the interpretation made in 1999 again - there is no need to interpret the law again,' she said.
The petition, however, has caused concern in Hong Kong's legal circles.
Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a legal professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the NPC deputies did not respect Hong Kong's jurisdiction and should leave Beijing's hand out of the city's affairs. 'This is absolutely a problem Hong Kong SAR can handle within the high autonomy framework,' he said.
Cheung added there should always be one interpretation of the law and that should not change even in new political or social situations.
Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung said reinterpreting the law was a controversial issue and the government should decide on it carefully.
Commenting on the issue for the first time, he said: 'The NPC's right to interpret the law is indisputable. But Hong Kong has an independent jurisdiction and final adjudication power, empowered by the Basic Law. We should not ignore these. So interpretation of the Basic Law should not be done with ease and haste.'
Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok also stressed that the city government would not consider an interpretation of the Basic Law at this stage, as administrative measures had proved effective in stemming the wave of pregnant mainlanders.
He said the Hospital Authority would submit a proposal late this month on whether or not to increase charges for mainland mothers who gave birth in emergency wards without a booking.