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A Cornerstone for Stability
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The Basic Law has withstood many challenges over the past decade, but its role in maintaining stability in Hong Kong has remained unchanged, members of the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee and legal experts said.

However, Hongkongers must still develop a better understanding of the mini-constitution, which guarantees them a high degree of autonomy from the central government.

The mini-charter en-countered some difficulties when the National People's Congress promulgated it in 1990. Elsie Leung, the former secretary for justice and deputy director of the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee, said few Hong Kong people understood the Basic Law initially, leading to several controversies. The National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) eventually had to issue three interpretations to clarify the most contentious provisions.

The first came in 1999, when the SAR's government, acting through the State Council, sought an interpretation of the provisions concerning the right of abode in the SAR after a ruling by the Court of Final Appeal had threatened to trigger a flood of 1.6 million mainland-born children with Hong Kong parents into the SAR, which would have posed a heavy burden on the city.

Then, in 2004, the NPCSC ruled that neither the 2007 chief executive (CE) election nor the 2008 legislative election would feature universal suffrage, emphasizing that changes to the electoral system would be made in a gradual and orderly manner as stipulated in the Basic Law.

For its part, the NPCSC helps steer the SAR's political system, said Hong Kong Basic Law Committee member Albert Chen.

"The high degree of autonomy in the SAR was based on the existing political system. However, the central government has the right to say whether the system is to be changed," he said.

The third interpretation came at the request of the SAR government in response to a controversy over the term of office of the new CE after the existing one resigned. The NPCSC ruled that should the office of CE become vacant, the next CE should serve out the remainder of his predecessor's five-year tenure.

The interpretation acts should not be viewed as the central government's interference in Hong Kong's internal affairs, Chen said.

"The NPCSC is highly self-restrained. It only exercises its power to interpret in very extreme conditions," Chen said.

Indeed, the NPCSC's timely moves have cleared up several cases of uncertainty, allowing Hong Kong's society and government to continue as normal.

"The society of Hong Kong remains stable. The economy, which was facing hardship at first, has recovered smoothly. The legal system and the independence of the judiciary are respected," said Chen.

While the final power to interpret the Basic Law lies with the NPCSC, the Court of Final Appeal has issued several judicial reviews over the years that have touched on the mini-constitution. These rulings have helped shed more light on the meaning of certain provisions of the Basic Law as well as their relationship to locally enacted laws.

(China Daily June 27, 2007)

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