Premier Li Keqiang declares China’s hold over Hong Kong is being strengthened, stops short of warning against independence

Delivering annual work report, No 2 state leader pledges full and accurate implementation of ‘one country, two systems’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 11:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 11:38pm

Premier Li Keqiang has declared that the authority of the country’s constitution and Hong Kong’s mini-constitution have been further realised in the city, vowing full support for its integration into developments on the mainland.

Delivering his work report on Monday at the start of the biggest political meeting of the year, China’s No 2 official also pledged that the central government would fully and accurately implement the “one country, two systems” governing principle in Hong Kong.

However, the state leader did not directly refer to the city’s freedoms under the principle, omitting two references – “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong” and the city’s “high degree of autonomy”, both of which appeared in his work reports from 2015 to 2017.

But Li also stopped short of warning against calls for independence, a subject he broached last year when such talk was on the rise.

In his report, Li listed several of Beijing’s achievements in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

“Fresh progress has been made in work related to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. The practice of one country, two systems has been consistently enriched and developed,” Li said.

“The authority of China’s constitution and the basic laws of the Hong Kong and Macau special administrative regions have been further raised in these two regions.”

The basic laws are the mini-constitutions of Hong Kong and Macau, which were returned to Chinese rule in the late 1990s.

Tough warning to Hong Kong given by top Chinese leader, who urges recognition of Beijing’s sovereignty

Since 2015, Li and other state leaders have emphasised that apart from following the Basic Law in Hong Kong, officials must also “act in strict accordance to the Chinese constitution”.

In 2014, Beijing’s top legislative body laid down a stringent framework for Hong Kong’s political reform, a move that triggered the Occupy protests that brought parts of the city to a standstill.

But despite the mass sit-ins, lasting 79 days, Beijing and local officials refused to give in and insisted that the framework was in line with the Basic Law.

While Li struck a moderate tone without any strong message for Hong Kong, a day earlier, Zhao Leji, the sixth-highest-ranking member of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee and the nation’s anti-corruption tsar, had tougher words for the city.

He warned that Beijing would not let anyone use the autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys as a cover to infiltrate or sabotage the mainland. Such activities touched upon Beijing’s “bottom line”, he cautioned, as he urged the city’s advisers to Beijing to speak up and demolish harmful ideas.

In his speech, Li set out other achievements of the city, as he noted that “exchanges and cooperation between the mainland and Hong Kong and Macau have been steadily enhanced”.

In a reference to a much-delayed infrastructure project, Li said: “The construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge has been completed, and Hong Kong and Macau have thrived and remained stable.”

The premier then moved on to his nine recommendations for the government this year.

Under his recommendation for making “solid progress in the coordinated regional development strategy”, he said: “We will unveil and implement the development plan for the Greater Bay Area and promote in all areas mutually beneficial cooperation between the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau.”

The Greater Bay Area is a project endorsed by Li in his work report a year ago to foster integration between Hong Kong, Macau and nine neighbouring mainland cities.

In a six-part conclusion to the report, Li touched on Hong Kong again and promised to “support Hong Kong and Macau in integrating their own development into overall national development”.

“We have every confidence that Hong Kong and Macau will develop and thrive together with the mainland,” he said.

In a move reminiscent of his previous reports, Li promised that Beijing would continue to implement the one country, two systems principle in a “comprehensive and accurate” manner.

“We will … act in strict compliance with China’s constitution and the basic laws,” he said.

“The governments and chief executives of [Hong Kong and Macau] will have our full support in exercising law-based governance and in their efforts to achieve strong economic growth, improve living standards, progressively advance democracy and promote social harmony.”

The premier also pledged to boost exchanges and cooperation between the mainland and the two cities.

Last year, Li unprecedentedly warned in his report that advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China “would lead nowhere”. He did not mention the topic in his report this year. 

Huang Shouhong, head of the State Council’s research office, said on Monday the principle of Hongkongers governing Hong Kong was only missing from Li’s report because of space limitations. Beijing’s attitude to Hong Kong has always been clear, he added.

National People’s Congress Standing Committee member Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai said the authority of the Basic Law and the constitution need to be realised even further in Hong Kong because some people deliberately misrepresent what the laws say.

“Some people purposefully misread [the laws] in order to mislead others,” the Hong Kong delegate said.

She told Hongkongers not to worry that Li did not mention in his report the high degree of autonomy and the principle of Hong Kong people running the city. That was because these two principles are already reflected in the Basic Law, she said.

Some people purposefully misread [the laws] in order to mislead others
Rita Fan

Hong Kong NPC deputy Tam Yiu-chung, who is tipped to be elected as Fan’s successor on the NPCSC on March 18, said while Li did not warn about advocating Hong Kong’s breakaway from China, national sovereignty “remains Beijing’s untouchable bottom line”.

“It was clearly explained in Xi Jinping’s report at the party congress last year … and the premier emphasised clearly the [implementation of] the one country, two systems principle,” he said.

“The concept of the high degree of autonomy is included in that principle, so not mentioning the concept did not mean that it disappeared or wasn’t important.”

On Li’s point that the authority of the Chinese constitution is being strengthened, another Hong Kong NPC deputy, Ma Fung-kwok, said he was referring to the NPCSC’s rulings on Hong Kong’s political reform and its interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law. That interpretation, in November 2016, dictated that oaths for legislators and officials must be taken “sincerely” and “solemnly”, and came soon before six Legislative Council members were disqualified for their badly taken oaths.

Tony Cheung and Phila Siu are reporting from Beijing