Legislative Council oath-taking saga

‘Pity’ that Beijing interpreted Basic Law during oath-taking saga, former Hong Kong justice chief says

Wong Yan-lung calls move ‘strongly politically motivated’, says it could have been avoided

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 October, 2017, 10:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 October, 2017, 1:34pm

Hong Kong’s former justice minister Wong Yan-lung said on Thursday it was “a pity” that Beijing interpreted the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, last November in the row over improper oath-taking in the local legislature.

Wong called the move “strongly politically motivated” and said it should not have been necessary as the oath-taking saga was only about “some individuals’ political expression”.

In October last year, the Hong Kong government made a legal bid to oust pro-independence lawmakers-elect Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching from the Legislative Council for deviating from the standard oath during their swearing-in.

The next month, before Hong Kong courts had reached a decision, the NPCSC – China's top legislative body – interpreted the local oath ordinance in what critics considered a controversial move to ensure the localist duo lost their seats.

Wong, who was secretary for justice between 2005 and 2012, was speaking at a seminar on the Basic Law at the University of Hong Kong.

“We must understand and accept that from the constitutional and legal perspective, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee undoubtedly has the power to interpret every single clause of the Basic Law,” he said.

“But at the same time, there is no doubt that such power must be exercised with extreme restraint and only when it is unavoidable.”

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The standing committee’s interpretation detailed requirements for a valid oath in Legco. It said lawmakers-elect must read out the complete oath precisely and solemnly. If they deliberately changed the wording or appeared to be insincere, they must be ruled to have declined to take the oath, it stipulated.

The local courts eventually sided with the government and removed Leung and Yau. Subsequently, four other pan-democratic lawmakers were also kicked from their Legco seats because of their oaths.

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Referring to the intervention by the standing committee, Wong said: “I find it a pity. It should have been avoidable.”

He noted that the three different levels of local courts all said they would have disqualified Leung and Yau even if Beijing had not made the move.

Since Hong Kong was handed from British to Chinese rule in 1997, the standing committee has interpreted the Basic Law five times: in 1999, 2004, 2005, 2011 and 2016. The first three times were over a right of abode issue, political development and the term of the chief executive, while the fourth was about “state immunity”.

Wong said last November’s interpretation was different from previous ones, adding that the reasons for the first four were “non-political”.

According to Article 158 of the city’s mini-constitution, the power to interpret the Basic Law is vested in the NPCSC.

During the seminar, Wong also warned that calls for Hong Kong independence were too extreme and could affect the central government’s trust in the city.