Press Releases

SCA: Government endeavours to create new room for constitutional development

The Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Stephen Lam, today (September 23) said that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government would endeavour to create new room for constitutional development beyond 2007. This would definitely be in the interest of Hong Kong.

Mr Lam was speaking at a luncheon hosted by the Hong Kong Australia Business Association and the Australia China Business Council in Sydney, Australia.

He noted that dealing with constitutional developments after 2007 would be a challenge. However, it should be possible to make progress, as no one in the HKSAR would like to see the post-2007 constitutional development resulting in a stalemate.

According to the Basic Law, effecting such changes would require the support of a two-thirds majority of members of the Legislative Council, he said.

"This will mean that to make any changes possible, the proposed changes need to have the support of a combination of both the directly elected members and functional constituency members.

"This will be a challenge, not just to the Government, but also to all members of the Legislative Council," he said.

Mr Lam stressed that his mission would be to work closely with different sectors and political parties, with the objective of widening the common ground, narrowing differences and building consensus.

The Constitutional Affairs Bureau is conducting internal research on the subject. Its current plan is to commence a wide public consultation exercise in 2004 and to deal with local legislation in 2006.

Mr Lam said that the review would be proper and thorough. There would be adequate opportunities for the public to take part in the public consultation and to give their views.

He said that the Basic Law had specifically set out the composition of the first three terms of the Legislative Council (LegCo).

Since the reunification, the number of directly elected seats in the LegCo had increased from 20 in the first term to 24 in the second term.

By 2004, half of the 60 seats in the LegCo would be returned through direct election. Compared with the composition of LegCo in 1997, this represented a 50 per cent increase in the number of directly elected seats.

As for the subsequent terms, the Basic Law provided that the HKSAR should pursue constitutional development, having regard to its actual situation and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress, with the ultimate aim of attaining universal suffrage, Mr Lam said.

Turning to the Accountability System, he said that the new system marked an important change in Hong Kong's governance.

For the first time in Hong Kong's history, there was a political team, the Principal Officials (POs), at the top layer of the Government to devise the policy agenda and to be accountable as a collective team to the community, he said.

A layer of Permanent Secretaries had been created to assist the POs in taking charge of the policy bureaux and executive government.

By so doing, the Government had strengthened the foundation of the civil service to remain as an apolitical, neutral, professional and uncorrupt civil service. The permanent civil service would always be there to serve the Hong Kong community, regardless of future changes of government following the election of Chief Executives, he said.

Mr Lam said that the implementation of the system had by no means been entirely smooth in the last year. The system would take time to evolve and develop. However, it represented an important step forward in constitutional development in Hong Kong.

He disagreed with suggestions that the Accountability System could not be implemented effectively until after the introduction of universal suffrage.

"Hong Kong is an open and transparent city. The legislature, the media and the public are fully capable of monitoring the performance of the Government and holding individual POs responsible for their respective policies," he said.

He pointed out that the recent developments concerning the enactment of the national security legislation demonstrated that the Government was prepared to heed public sentiment and adjust its position in the light of public opinion and views expressed by members of the legislature.

In the light of doubts and concerns expressed by the community about the provisions of the proposed legislation, the Government had decided to withdraw the National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill from the legislative programme, to allow sufficient time for the matter to be reconsidered, studied and dealt with over a longer time-span.

This case illustrated that under the Basic Law, the executive government could only take forward legislative or budgetary proposals with the support and consent of the legislature. Such a system of checks and balances was similar to that applicable in other common law jurisdictions, Mr Lam said.

He added that from the outset, in designing the system, the Government had been ready to assume a higher degree of accountability to the public and had endeavoured to be proactive in meeting the needs of the community.

For example, when SARS began to subside, the Government adopted a HK$11.8 billion programme to revive the economy and create about 72,000 employment and retraining opportunities. Under the previous system, such a programme might have taken months, rather than weeks, to be put together, he said.

Another good example was the conclusion of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) between Hong Kong and the Mainland, he said.

"There are strong demands that we need to move ahead, to get the economy going again, and to get the unemployment situation improved. The Government has been responding to these community aspirations pro-actively."

Mr Lam said that under CEPA, specified categories of manufactured goods of Hong Kong origin could enter the Mainland duty-free. Hong Kong's service industries could also enter the Mainland market ahead of other places.

He pointed out that the subsidiaries of foreign companies incorporated in Hong Kong could also be classified as Hong Kong companies and benefit from CEPA, provided that they satisfied the requisite criteria of having an established business track record in Hong Kong.

"Among our foreign business partners in Hong Kong, Australian companies have been a vibrant and diverse group. There are more than 400 Australian companies in Hong Kong and many of them are increasingly engaged in business with the Mainland.

"Australia is also strong in exporting its service industry to Hong Kong, particularly in the areas of engineering and construction services, legal and accounting and architecture. All these sectors should stand to benefit from CEPA," he said.

Mr Lam added that under the Basic Law, Hong Kong had retained its membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) after the reunification.

Following China's entry into the WTO, Hong Kong was able to conclude a free trade agreement in accordance with the rules of the WTO.

"The conclusion of CEPA with the Mainland which enables Hong Kong to enter the Mainland market ahead of other places highlights Hong Kong's unique status guaranteed by the Basic Law. It demonstrates that Hong Kong is not 'just another Chinese city', but enjoys a special position after reunification," Mr Lam said.

End/Tuesday, September 23, 2003