Amid recent political events that signaled Beijing’s tightening rule over Hong Kong, local media outlets reported that four senior officials in Hong Kong government would be replaced.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, with the express guarantee that the city’s autonomy and essential freedoms would be preserved.
But recent events drew concerns that Beijing was further encroaching on Hong Kong affairs.
They were triggered when one week ago, two offices of the Chinese regime, the Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China’s State Council, made rare attacks on lawmakers in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, triggering a debate about the limits of Beijing’s interference.
Hong Kong media, including public broadcaster RTHK, quoted anonymous sources who said four top ministers will be replaced.
Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who was secretary of constitutional and mainland affairs—an office that handles trade, business, and other forms of cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland—would take over the Civil Service Bureau.
Current immigration director Erick Tsang Kwok-wai will then replace Nip.
Tsang would be replaced by the current deputy director Au Ka Wang.
Current director of the Civil Service Bureau, Joshua Law Chi-kon, will leave government after Nip takes his position, according to the RTHK report.
Meanwhile, Lau Kong-wah, current home affairs secretary, will be replaced by Caspar Tsui Ying-wai, the current under-secretary for labor and welfare, the report said.
Lau was elected as a district councillor in Sha Tin in 1985 and then started his political life.
The innovation and technology secretary Nicholas Young Wei-hsiung and secretary for financial services and treasury James Henry Lau Jr. will leave their government posts as well. They will be replaced by electrical and mechanical services director Alfred Sit and executive director of the financial services development council Christopher Hui Ching-yu.
The report said these changes will be officially announced soon.
Some local lawmakers said the moves reflected Beijing’s tightening grip over the city.
“This is not an ordinary reshuffle. This is a show of power,” Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung told Reuters.
The changes came after the Hong Kong government released three different versions of a statement relating to the powers of Beijing’s representative office in charge of handling Hong Kong affairs, the Liaison Office.
On April 18 before 7 p.m., a statement was published, explaining that the Liaison Office was set up “by the central government in accordance with Article 22(2) of the Basic Law,” referring to the city’s mini-constitution stipulating rules and regulations post-handover.
That provision forbids any “departments of the Central People’s Government” to interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong. It also states that any offices set up by such departments must abide by local laws.
At around 11:30 p.m., the statement was revised, with the reference to the “Basic Law” removed.
Again after midnight, the statement was updated, stating that the Liaison Office was set up under “the Central People’s government [referring to Beijing]” and not under Article 22(2) of the Basic Law.
On April 20, the government released another statement explaining that the changes were made because the initial statement was found to be “factually inaccurate,” and reiterated that the Liaison Office was not set up under provisions of the Basic Law.
On April 21, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam repeated the statement, emphasizing that the two Beijing offices have the power of supervision in Hong Kong.
Observers took this statement as a sign that Beijing would directly interfere with Hong Kong in the future.
U.S.-based China affairs commentator Tang Jingyuan said this statement, coupled with the recent arrests of 18 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and lawmakers and the recent news of personnel changes, was a sign of Beijing’s desire to “tighten control over Hong Kong.”
“I believe that we will see Beijing’s next steps soon. The ultimate purpose is, Beijing wants to make use of this pandemic period [when the world’s attention is focused on the pandemic] to take control of Hong Kong,” Tang commented.
Intervene Vs Supervise
The catalyst for the statement is the Hong Kong legislature, where the chairman of the House Committee has not been filled since Oct. 16, 2019. The House Committee decides which bills are brought before the floor.
The deputy chairman, pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, led other pro-democracy colleagues to filibuster the vote.
Thus on April 13, the Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Beijing’s top agency for handling those territories’ policies, issued a statement criticizing Kwok and his colleagues.
Subsequently, Hong Kong society became concerned that this rare statement directly attacking local lawmakers was a sign of Beijing meddling with local affairs.
On April 14, the Hong Kong Bar Association released a statement condemning the Beijing offices’ criticisms, explaining that they amounted to interference with Hong Kong’s affairs.
After the Hong Kong government statements, the bar association released a second statement, delineating the powers designated to Hong Kong and Beijing within the Basic Law: “HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] shall enjoy ‘a high degree of autonomy’ (Article 12 of Basic Law) and executive, legislative and judicial powers…whilst the Central People’s Government (CPG) shall be responsible for the foreign affairs and defence relating to the HKSAR (Articles 13 and 14).”
Upon conducting a legal analysis, the bar association concluded that if Beijing’s “supervision” as mentioned by Lam connotes “intervention in matters falling within the remit of the HKSAR’s autonomy under the Basic Law,” then the Beijing offices’ powers would be “inconsistent” with provisions in the Basic Law.