(Editor’s note: Grenville Cross, SC, former director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR, on Thursday delivered a speech at a seminar marking the "National Security Education Day 2021". The following is the text of his speech)
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I am delighted to have been invited to address you today, and to share with you my thoughts on Hong Kong’s situation, and what better place to start than with the Basic Law.
The Basic Law, which was enacted by the National People’s Congress in 1990 and took effect on July 1, 1997, is the rock on which this city is built, and it is a remarkable constitutional document. I say that because it not only reflects the substance of what was agreed between China and the United Kingdom in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, but, in a great show of faith by Beijing, it also took matters considerably further than was originally envisaged by the Joint Declaration’s negotiators. Apart from enabling Hong Kong to negotiate agreements for legal assistance in criminal matters with other jurisdictions, the Basic Law also entrusted the city with enacting its own national security laws on behalf of the central authorities, which meant they would be the laws with which its people felt most comfortable. The prospect, moreover, of universal suffrage being adopted, in the elections for both the chief executive and the legislative council, was also enshrined, although not a part of the Joint Declaration, which was an unprecedented step for Hong Kong.
At the same time, the Basic Law is a two-way street. While creating rights and freedoms, it also contains responsibilities, which must be honored. Whereas the central authorities undertook to maintain Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life for 50 years, the city has obligations of its own to the rest of the country, but here there have been problems. Hong Kong’s inability to enact national security laws, as it was required to do, even after 23 years, was ruthlessly exploited by hostile forces, which launched an insurgency in 2019, intended to cripple the government, destroy the city, and provoke a confrontation with Beijing. When this failed, a plot was hatched to take control of the Legislative Council, not for the purposes of securing better housing, higher wages or improved social welfare, but in order to block the budget, force the Chief Executive to resign, and create constitutional chaos. As with the insurgency, had this plot succeeded it would have spelt the death knell for the one country, two systems policy, but, fortunately for us all, it was also foiled.
Turning to global criminal justice, my own area, Hong Kong lacks fugitive offender surrender agreements with many places, and this has benefitted the criminals, who cannot be returned from whence they came to face justice. This has meant that the city has been unable to discharge its international obligations to combat crime, and is a blow to criminal justice everywhere. However, when a fugitive surrender mechanism was proposed in 2019, which, subject to judicial oversight, would have enabled criminal suspects to be returned to the 177 jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no surrender agreements, including the other parts of China, it attracted irrational and violent opposition, much of it orchestrated from abroad. A sensible proposal to enable offenders to be brought to account in those 177 jurisdictions was hijacked by hostile forces, who weaponized it in order to try to destroy Hong Kong and demonize China, wholly disregarding the merits of the proposal, which had at its epicenter the city’s obligation to uphold criminal justice around the world.
Although the central authorities cannot have been happy with Hong Kong having no national security laws, and becoming a safe haven for criminal fugitives, they nonetheless kept faith with the city. In 2014, when, as envisaged by the Basic Law, they brought forward proposals whereby the chief executive could, for the first time, be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, they were voted down by opposition parties in the legislative council, who felt they did not go far enough. Instead of grabbing this opportunity, they chose to stifle progress of any sort, and Hong Kong has remained rooted in the past. While they may not have realized it at the time, by preventing a popularly elected chief executive from taking office in 2017, they had also shut the door on any further democratization of the legislative council itself, which was very sad for anybody hoping to see the electoral progress contemplated by the Basic Law becoming a reality.
Although, by 2012, Hong Kong’s democratic experiment had reached the point whereby 35 of its legislative councilors were directly elected from geographical constituencies, with 35 being indirectly elected through functional constituencies, many of those elected proved they were unfit to serve, which was a huge problem. Whereas incoming legislative councilors are required to swear to uphold the Basic Law and to pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR of the PRC, some of the so-called “pan-democrats” turned this solemn occasion into a farce, uttering profanities, staging secessionist stunts and insulting the Chinese nation. Others, although duly sworn in, subsequently betrayed their oaths of office, by preventing the legislative council from discharging its business, causing violent disruptions inside the council’s chamber, and urging foreign powers to adopt legislation which would undermine the city’s trading status, endanger people’s jobs, and harm local and mainland officials.
As if this was not bad enough, these opposition legislators also whitewashed the excesses of the men and women of violence, took every opportunity to malign the central authorities, and sought to ingratiate themselves with their own country’s geopolitical adversaries. They tried to block the laws which the government needed to control the riots, and, instead of unequivocally condemning those who brought death and destruction to the streets, they tried to demonize the police force. Even though, with great courage, the force’s often young officers had saved the city, without causing any of the fatalities which have characterized recent anti-riot operations in, for example, Chile, France and the United States, the response of the opposition legislators was not to thank the force for its professionalism, but to urge foreign countries to end training exercises with it, and terminate the supply of crowd control and other equipment. Inside the legislative council, they even used the budget debates to try to block the funding the force needs to protect the city and meet its future challenges.
Quite clearly, the democratic experiment was being undermined by political wreckers, who saw the one country, two systems policy not as a great opportunity, but as a means of harming China. While paying lip service to Hong Kong, everything they did was designed to weaken its governance, harm its standing, and further the interests of foreign powers. Although the national security law has now provided the police force with the tools it needs to protect the city, to bring an end to mob violence and associated terror-type activities, and to hold subversives to account, it is not a panacea, and a properly functioning legislature is also required. The national security law, while effective in restoring peace to our streets and decency to our society, is unable to neutralize the threats posed by people who have infiltrated the body politic in order to sabotage it from within, and electoral reform has become unavoidable.
After all, no country can allow its public positions to be occupied by people who do not have its best interests at heart, who show contempt for its institutions, and who disregard national imperatives. The electoral system, through systematic abuse, has largely failed the people of Hong Kong, and the central authorities, to ensure the survival of the one country, two systems policy, have been left with no choice but to intervene. Had they done nothing, the city’s downward spiral would have continued, and whatever chances there may be of its unique status continuing beyond 2047, when the Basic Law’s “50 years unchanged” expires, would have been lost forever.
In reality, therefore, the central authorities have given Hong Kong a fresh opportunity, and this has been achieved within the existing constitutional framework. Whereas Article 31 of China’s Constitution enables the creation of special administrative regions “when necessary”, the actual systems to be followed in those regions are prescribed by the National People’s Congress “in the light of specific conditions”. As the specific conditions for electing officials in Hong Kong require reform, given the abuse, the NPC’s decision of March 11, to ensure that the electoral system works as originally intended, is being achieved by revising the Basic Law’s Annex I (concerning election of the chief executive), and Annex II (concerning election of the legislative council). The changes, therefore, do not affect the substantive parts of the Basic Law, including those which see universal suffrage as “the ultimate aim” in the chief executive and legislative council elections, and this is obviously reassuring for those who are still hopeful that this can be achieved one day.
Indeed, it is clear that the whole emphasis of the electoral reforms is on creating arrangements which work for Hong Kong, and can provide it with the focus it needs. As everybody who cares for the city understands, it is necessary to ensure that it is properly governed, and that those who assume public office have its interests and those of the country at heart. There can, moreover, be no place for those who either wish to frustrate the successful operation of the one country, two systems policy, or promote the policy agendas of foreign powers. That said, the proposals envisage the participation of people of different political persuasions, provided only that they love the motherland and love Hong Kong.
Quite clearly, Hong Kong has had a very narrow escape. The armed insurrection, the plot to topple the government, the attacks on mainland people and property, the abuse of the electoral system, the secessionist activity, and the invitations to foreign powers to interfere in the city’s affairs, might have destabilized the entire country, and the central authorities could well have concluded that the Hong Kong experiment had failed, and that “enough is enough”. They have, however, kept faith with the city, and demonstrated their determination to ensure the survival of the one country, two systems policy.
Although everyone should be grateful for this, Hong Kong must now reciprocate by showing that it was indeed worth saving. If it does that, I have no doubt that it has a bright future ahead of it, as a dynamic Chinese city with global clout, whether through its financial services, its technology and innovation skills, its logistics and maritime capabilities, its design and manufacturing strengths, its legal and accounting services, or its trading prowess. We have been through a traumatic period in which forces hostile to China, including those fair-weather friends who let us down in our hour of need, have tried to destroy the city we love, but we have survived, and we now have the tools we need to get things back on track.
We have, as a city, 24 years after reunification, come of age, and our path is now clear. If we take full advantage not only of our traditional attributes but also our new strengths, I firmly believe Hong Kong will be able to advance itself and to contribute decisively to national development in the years ahead, and we must now seize our destiny.
HONG KONG NEWS