HONG KONG (Reuters) - China’s top parliamentary panel will discuss Hong Kong’s mini-constitution and how it should be interpreted, the Chinese-ruled city government said on Friday, to try to end a crisis over a fledgling independence movement but raising fears of legal interference.
The Hong Kong government confirmed that the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress would consider provisions of Hong Kong’s Basic Law related to political allegiance this weekend.
The move comes as the Hong Kong government tries to disqualify two newly elected legislators promoting independence from China, amid growing speculation that Beijing would intervene.
A National People’s Congress delegate in Beijing told Hong Kong media the request to intervene came from the standing committee.
“I believe the reasons involved national unity and territorial integrity,” said Hong Kong delegate Maria Tam.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule with wide-ranging autonomy in 1997, was rocked by street protests calling for democracy in 2014 and more recently by calls for independence, an idea that is anathema to Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
China’s state news agency Xinhua said parliament head Zhang Dejiang, who is one of China’s most senior Communist Party officials, and other top NPC members heard a report on Friday about the issue.
The meeting proposed that the NPC Standing Committee review a “draft explanation” of the article in Hong Kong’s Basic Law governing the swearing-in of the territory’s lawmakers and other officials on Monday, it said.
The Standing Committee has used such powers before, but many across the political and legal elite of the global financial hub fear any intervention from Beijing will deal a severe blow to Hong Kong’s vaunted judicial independence.
The Hong Kong Bar Association said such intervention would undermine international confidence in Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“The irreparable harm it will do to Hong Kong far outweighs any purpose it could possibly achieve,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
Foreign diplomats say they are watching the situation, stressing the importance of the rule of the law to the city’s international reputation.
A separate legal system, along with extensive personal freedoms, is part of the “one country, two systems” formula under which Britain handed Hong Kong back to China.
The move is likely to pre-empt a court case under way that could disqualify the two pro-independence lawmakers yet to be sworn in to the Legislative Council.
Yau Wai-ching, 25, and Baggio Leung, 30, had their swearing-in oaths invalidated last month over language and a banner that was deemed derogatory to China.
The Hong Kong government has asked the courts to disqualify the two on the basis that they declined to take their oaths of office and do not comply with the Basic Law.
The Hong Kong government statement said the committee would discuss an article in the Basic Law requiring legislators to “swear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China”.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the government was paying close attention to the issue, but refused to elaborate when queried repeatedly at a news conference.
“After the interpretation happens, we will comment for sure,” he said.
Hong Kong’s Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma told media he would not comment due to the court case.
Hong Kong University law professor Simon Young warned of a troubling disconnect between Beijing, which wanted action, and the Hong Kong government, which preferred to let the city’s legal system deal with the issue.
During the hearing, a government lawyer said the dispute “can and should be” resolved by the Hong Kong judicial system, echoing the position of Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen.
“We have never been in this situation before ... and my worry is that if they act with too much urgency with an interpretation, there could be flaws that will mean a second and third interpretation would be needed,” Young said.
It would be difficult for a sweeping constitutional interpretation to deal with all the gray areas and nuances of local laws, which provide for extensive freedoms, he said.
New lawmaker Leung, speaking on Wednesday, said Chinese intervention would destroy Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“Our whole election system cannot be messed around like this, even though it is already handicapped,” he said.
“If this logic stands, what’s the point of having elections? Why don’t we just ask Beijing to nominate people for us?”
Reporting by Venus Wu; Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI; Editing by Greg Torode, Nick Macfie and Jacqueline Wong