The Asian Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2001

Asian Wall Street Journal

By Martin C.M. Lee

Earlier this year the Hong Kong government presented to the Legislative Council a bill to make provisions for electing the next chief executive after Tung Chee Hwa's term expires on June 30, 2002. The Chief Executive Election Bill was not expected to be controversial. But for some reason best known to Mr. Tung, the bill included a clause which provided that the office of the chief executive would become vacant "if the Central People's Government revokes the appointment of the Chief Executive."

I and other prodemocracy politicians opposed the bill on the grounds that it gave Beijing the power to remove the chief executive at will, a power that is not found in the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitutional document. But Mr. Michael Suen, Hong Kong's secretary for constitutional affairs claimed in a letter to the editor published in The Asian Wall Street Journal on July 20, 2001: "The law in question simply reflects the provisions of the Basic Law ... which empower the central people's government to appoint as well as remove the Hong Kong chief executive. No more, no less." This is blatantly untrue.

For while the Basic Law makes provisions for the appointment as well as removal of judges, senior government officials and all holders of public offices, significantly, it only provides for the appointment of the chief executive and says absolutely nothing about his or her removal. It requires that the chief executive resign in certain circumstances, for example, when "he or she loses the ability to discharge his or her duties as a result of serious illness or other reasons," and it further empowers the Legislative Council to impeach the chief executive for "serious breach of law or dereliction of duty."

There was a very good reason this was so. For giving Beijing the power to remove the chief executive would have undoubtedly destroyed Hong Kong people's confidence in their future, which was not something Beijing wanted to see.

Recall the circumstances of the Basic Law's drafting. It was promulgated in Beijing on April 4, 1990, exactly 10 months after the massacre on June 4, 1989, when the leaders in Beijing were still not sure of their own future. So it was understandable that they wanted more power reserved to the central government than was really necessary to fulfill Deng Xiaoping's promise of "one country, two systems--Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy" enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Beijing's bottom line was the control of Hong Kong. But Beijing also wanted the Hong Kong goose to continue laying golden eggs after 1997. Otherwise, the Basic Law would be even less acceptable to the people of Hong Kong. This is best illustrated by the provisions of the Basic Law in relation to the chief executive.

The method of election of the chief executive through an election committee consisting primarily of pro-Beijing people effectively ensures that only a person acceptable to Beijing can win. But the Basic Law provides a further safeguard--the winning candidate has to be appointed to the post of chief executive by Beijing; and Beijing need not appoint the winner if it does not approve of him or her. But once appointed, the chief executive cannot be removed at will by Beijing during his or her term of office.

But the autonomy that Beijing granted is now being thrown away by Mr. Tung. Even after many weeks of vigorous attack on the bill from pro-democracy legislators, the government's final version still included clause 4(c): "if the Central People's Government removes the Chief Executive from office in accordance with the Basic Law."

The addition of the words "in accordance with the Basic Law" simply did not allay the fears of many people because by that provision, Beijing could remove the chief executive on the pretext, for example, that the Hong Kong government had introduced a deficit budget in defiance of a provision in the Basic Law which required it to "avoid deficits"; or on the ground that the chief executive had delayed the introduction of legislation to prohibit the activities of the Falun Gong in Hong Kong as "subversion against the Central People's government." And what is more, the right to interpret the Basic Law is vested in the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

I therefore moved an amendment to clause 4(c), limiting the occurrence of the vacancy of the office of the chief executive to the two situations mentioned in the Basic Law, in which the chief executive was required to resign or after he or she had been impeached by the Legislative Council, as well as to a few other situations raised by the secretary for constitutional affairs.

Two other fellow prodemocracy legislators jointly moved another amendment which provided that there would be an election when the office of the chief executive became vacant either on the expiry of his or her term, or for some other reasons. Both amendments would have avoided giving a power to Beijing to remove the chief executive during his or her term of office for having done something which might be entirely good for Hong Kong, but which his or her Beijing masters did not agree with.

During the debate in the Legislative Council on July 11, 2001, I made it clear that the purpose of my amendment was to give some respectability to the office of the chief executive, so that the holder of that office would not have to look over his or her shoulder every day for fear of being removed from office.

But unfortunately, it appeared that Mr. Tung did not want that respectability. For the government strongly opposed both amendments and succeeded in getting the pro-Beijing legislators to reject the amendments and support the government's clause 4(c). Thus, Mr. Tung gave to his Beijing masters the power to remove himself and his successors at will--a power that even his masters had not dared to include in the Basic Law themselves. Mr. Tung is telling the whole world: "I want to be a puppet." Not only that, he made sure that all his successors in office would also be Beijing's puppets.

But this is not the end of our worries. For Mr. Donald Tsang, the chief secretary for administration, is under orders to put together a plan whereby all senior civil servants will be put on fixed term contracts as opposed to pensionable terms, so that every senior civil servant knows that if he or she should ever upset Mr. Tung, he or she will not get another contract. Mr. Tung will soon be able to surround himself with "yes-men" and "yes-women." There goes the high degree of autonomy. And Hong Kong will soon be run from Beijing through the Chief Puppet and his or her own small puppets in Hong Kong.

Is it any wonder, then, that the three top leaders in Beijing, President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice-premier Qian Qichen, should have openly endorsed Mr. Tung for a second term of office of five years as the chief executive of Hong Kong as from 1 July 2002?

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