Understanding of Basic Law holds valuable lessons for students

Kerry Kennedy says rote learning will not serve their best interests

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 3:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 3:27pm

With the 25th anniversary of the declaration of the Basic Law, many comments have been directed at schools and policymakers about the importance of teaching about the Basic Law. The Education Bureau has recently released a teaching kit for teachers. This concern partly reflects current debates in Hong Kong about political reform and the central role played by the Basic Law in that process. Yet there is also international concern about law-related education and its importance in the civic development of young people. Citizens who do not understand the law that guides so much of their lives may lack the knowledge to make a productive contribution to political and social development.

There are two key issues that have not been addressed: what to teach and how to teach. These are quite different issues, yet very often in the minds of advocates for such teaching, it is a simple question of transmitting knowledge of the law to students.

However, students need to be engaged in a process that takes them beyond rote learning. They need to discuss and debate ideas and listen to other people's ideas to consolidate their learning. They need to learn important content and they need to learn it in a way that it will serve them as future citizens.

What, then, should students learn about the Basic Law? There are at least five broad domains that can structure learning. The rule of law is the first. This would stress that, in a society governed by the rule of law, it is not individuals or politics that decide what a law means but an independent judiciary. This is exactly Hong Kong's context but with the interesting twist that the Basic Law is a Chinese law being administered in a rule of law context. There is much of interest to debate and students can be easily engaged.

The second domain can be related to the law in society, or rule by law. This is extremely important because there is much confusion between the meaning of "rule of law" and "rule by law". The latter is how most societies are regulated; the former is about a fair and just administration of laws so their purpose is not subverted by the opinions of individuals and authorities. Laws are there to protect individuals and society, to maintain order and morality and to guarantee that individuals can live feeling protected, but not overly constrained. Here is a great challenge for students - to understand the difference between the two. Such discussion is a feast for lawyers, but it should be part of everyday discussion for students.

Laws are produced in particular historical contexts and so the third learning domain refers to the context that shaped the Basic Law. There are many original sources, in both English and Chinese, to help appreciate how Hong Kong emerged from being a British colony to become a special administrative region of China . There are historical personalities, public debates and fundamental issues to explore.

The fourth domain relates to understanding how laws are made. This could be very dry except there is unique feature of the Basic Law: while its main features came out of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, it is a Chinese law enacted by the National People's Congress. While the Basic Law applies to Hong Kong, it was developed in Beijing. In many ways, the law is a reflection of "one country, two systems". Any analysis can use this as the broad context for understanding what the law says and, perhaps more importantly, what it means.

Finally laws are not immutable - they change. Thus, students should understand how the Basic Law can be changed, who has the authority to do so and what the processes are for seeking agreement. Comparisons can be made with Hong Kong's laws and how the local common law system is different from the mainland's legal system.

The Basic Law is a document constructed by social and political interests and it has an ongoing influence on Hong Kong's development. Appreciating this, and understanding how the law operates, can be the first step in young people's better understanding of Hong Kong's current and future development.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education