Basic Law’s Article 22 ‘does not apply’ to Beijing’s liaison office, Hong Kong justice secretary says

Sum Lok-kei

Beijing’s Hong Kong liaison office is not bound by a clause in the Basic Law that guarantees non-interference from mainland departments in local affairs, the city’s justice minister said on Monday, although the office still must abide by the law.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, speaking at a Legislative Council panel meeting, took the most definitive position yet on the matter after nearly two weeks of public debate over the liaison office’s role in Hong Kong.

“Article 22 of the Basic Law does not apply to the liaison office,” Cheng said.

The article states that “no department of the Central People’s Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government” shall interfere in Hong Kong affairs.

Beijing’s Hong Kong liaison office has been at the centre of controversy this month after condemning opposition lawmakers it said were holding up Legco businesses with filibustering tactics. Photo: Bloomberg

It also says any mainland department wishing to set up offices in the city must first obtain the Hong Kong government’s consent.

But the liaison office, which functioned in the city as Xinhua News Agency until 2000, predates the Basic Law, Cheng said on Monday, meaning its establishment required no approval from Hong Kong authorities.

Cheng said that while the office represented Beijing in Hong Kong, it was not a central government department, meaning it was not referenced in Article 22 and therefore not limited by it.

The office, however, still had to abide by Hong Kong laws, including the Basic Law, she said, citing the Chinese Constitution.

Lam says Beijing interference row distracts from opposition shackling of Legco

Cheng’s comments followed the government’s issuing of three flip-flopping statements on the subject just over a week ago amid accusations of interference. The allegations came on the heels of the liaison office, and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, publicly slamming opposition lawmakers for filibustering tactics that have prevented legislation from moving forward.

While in its past replies to Legco the government has said the office was bound by Article 22, local officials have largely avoided addressing the central issue directly, instead stating that the two agencies’ comments did not constitute interference.

After the meeting, Cheng was asked if the liaison office could be seen as interfering in local affairs if it openly supported candidates in the upcoming Legco election.

Secretary for Justice Teresa stated unequivocally on Monday that Beijing’s liaison office was not referenced in Article 22 of the Hong Kong’s Basic Law and therefore not bound by it. Photo: Dickson Lee

“Anyone can give a stance on supporting [a candidate] or not,” Cheng said, adding it was up to voters to make their own decisions.

Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung described Cheng’s explanation of Article 22 as “illogical”.

“If you’re telling me the office is not bound by Article 22, but it will strictly follow the Basic Law, then what is it abiding to?” Yeung said.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, meanwhile, a Basic Law Committee member and chairwoman of the panel, said the Hong Kong government needed to better educate the public on the relationship between central and local authorities.

“Saying it clearly is better than having more arguments in the future,” she said.

During the meeting, Cheng was also questioned about the behaviour of individual prosecutors.

While opposition legislators raised concerns about a prosecutor who allegedly described anti-government protesters as “cockroaches”, pro-government lawmakers questioned her over a prosecutor they said was offering protesters advice on how to avoid arrest in a newly published book offering legal knowledge for the young.

Cheng refused to comment on the first case, and said the prosecutor involved with the book had been moved to another post while an investigation was under way.

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