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Introduction to the Hong Kong Basic Law, by Danny Gittings

Books: 'Introduction to the Hong Kong Basic Law', by Danny Gittings

The dramatic story of Hong Kong's return to China and the 16 years which have followed is not always an easy one to understand.


by Danny Gittings
Hong Kong University Press
4 stars

The dramatic story of Hong Kong's return to China and the 16 years which have followed is not always an easy one to understand.

Controversial issues such as universal suffrage, national security laws or the right of abode have been the subject of much debate.

But these are complex matters underpinned by a unique legal document: the Hong Kong Basic Law. A grasp of what is sometimes referred to as the city's "mini-constitution" is, therefore, essential to understanding Hong Kong today. And Gittings' is a good place to start.

Many of us approach law books with trepidation. But Gittings, a legal academic, used to be a journalist and this shows in his ability to make the book accessible to the general reader. Amid the often technical legal arguments about the Basic Law it is easy to forget what a good story lies behind it. This is the law underpinning the "one country, two systems" concept governing Hong Kong since the handover in 1997.

Gittings traces the history of the law from the first Sino-British negotiations. Rather than being the carefully calibrated result of a long and thoughtful process, he writes, the Basic Law is the result of "a series of historical accidents".

The drafting history of the Basic Law makes for interesting reading, with the benefit of more than two decades of hindsight. As Gittings points out, the debates which took place during that process in the late 1980s have had a profound effect on issues facing Hong Kong today.

But the heart of the book is to be found in its analysis of all that has happened since 1997: the right of abode saga, the Article 23 protest, Tung Chee-hwa's resignation as chief executive, and Beijing's interpretations of the Basic Law are all put under the microscope.

One of the most intriguing chapters is the last one. It focuses on a question which is only just beginning to surface: what happens to Hong Kong after 2047?

The Basic Law states that Hong Kong's capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years. Some argue that the Basic Law will then simply cease to apply and Hong Kong will no longer have a separate system to the rest of China.

Gittings argues this is not necessarily the case and that, while the Basic Law can undergo fundamental changes from June 30, 2047, onwards, it may survive in something like its present form much longer than that.

The book describes the one country, two systems arrangements as "remarkable". They give Hong Kong extraordinarily wide-ranging powers, it says. But Gittings sees trouble ahead, with further controversies over the way in which the Basic Law is interpreted.

In the longer term, however, he is cautiously optimistic.

The Basic Law will continue to be central to issues facing the city for years to come. This book enables the reader to quickly acquire a much better understanding of them.