ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Hong Kong 1999

Primarily as a consequence of the antagonistic and confrontational strategy the last British governor, Chris Patten, followed in his policy towards Beijing, the political atmosphere in Hong Kong when the colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was envenomed and polarised. A vigorously anti-Beijing party had flourished in the climate created by the governor, and the touchstone of ‘pro-Beijing’ or ‘pro-Patten’ was applied to political conflict across a wide range of issues, including prospects for civil and political liberties, readiness to abide by treaty commitments versus intentions to circumvent or breach them, and conflicting interpretations of how the rule of law could be sustained. Beyond that, the initial hopes and commitments of both the sovereign powers, London and Beijing, that the reversion would be accomplished amicably, by smooth constitutional conversion under agreements that had been reached in protracted negotiation and expressed in treaty and legislation, had been dashed. Instead, makeshift arrangements which Beijing had been forced to introduce to meet Patten’s challenges created uncertainty about the future, and meant that the essential governmental structure of what became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) lay under legal challenge from the moment of its birth.

From midnight of June 30, 1997, when China “resumed the exercise of sovereignty”, the efforts of the Beijing authorities and of the new-born government of the SAR were directed to stabilisation and reassurance. The lurid forebodings of a savagely oppressive Communist crackdown on Hong Kong’s liberties propagated by Patten and his political allies and megaphoned in the press, domestic and western, were quickly belied. Beijing proved in practice its intention to abide rigorously by its treaty commitments to a hands-off policy, leaving Hong Kong to be governed by its own people, free of interference from the mainland. But the partisan investment in ‘anti-Beijing’ postures developed in the Patten years could not easily be liquidated or replaced with more positive programmes, and continued to shape and map the political landscape. Adherence to that position was especially strong in the legal profession, and so the challenge to the legitimacy of the provisional legislative council which came into formal existence with the SAR, and therefore to the validity of Hong Kong’s post-reversion polity, advanced steadily through the courts. It reached its climax in a ruling of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal (CFA), issued in January 1999. That judgment embodied a provocative challenge to Beijing’s ultimate authority over Hong Kong, and its partial reversal under pressure by the executive, supported by Beijing, aroused a storm of criticism, widely echoed abroad. It was charged that the Hong Kong government had shown itself to be the toady of Beijing, and that Beijing had revealed its ulterior intention to undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong and thus subvert the ‘high degree of autonomy’ promised to the SAR.

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