However, when such a case came up in 1999—involving the right of mainlanders with Hong Kong parents to live in the territory—the Court decided to make its own interpretation. Subsequently, the Tung administration asked Beijing for a reinterpretation and the Court’s opinion was overturned. Still, until this year, the Court didn’t ask the Standing Committee for an interpretation.
This changed last month. The Court of Final Appeal in a case involving the Congolese Government asked the Standing Committee for an interpretation of the Basic Law as to whether foreign governments enjoy absolute immunity in Hong Kong courts.
Under the common law that prevailed in Hong Kong before 1997, foreign governments only enjoyed restricted immunity, which doesn’t apply to commercial dealings. The Chinese foreign ministry, however, has written three letters to the Hong Kong judiciary on this issue. These letters emphasize the ‘consistent and principled position’ of the Chinese government, which is that ‘a state and its property shall, in foreign courts, enjoy absolute immunity, including absolute immunity from jurisdiction and from execution.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Since the Standing Committee is a political body, its interpretation of the law is unlikely to deviate from that of the Foreign Ministry. Thus, Hong Kong’s highest court, by asking for an interpretation, was in reality accepting the Chinese government’s position.
This is something that it wouldn’t have done 12 years ago. Today, with a population that much better understands Hong Kong’s relationship to the Chinese government, the Courtevidently feels comfortable enough to submit itself to the authority of the National People’s Congress.
As for how the Hong Kong public feels, aside from the marches calling for democracy and for the annual candlelight vigils to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, it’s clear that at least a segment of the public now feels relatively comfortable about the relationship with Beijing.
This even extends to some young Hong Kong men wanting to serve in the Chinese military. Hong Kong residents are exempt from conscription, but Gen. Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said in an interview earlier this month that Hong Kong people are welcome to join the armed forces.
Interestingly, the general’s remarks weren’t met with hostility, phrased as they were as China being willing to accommodate Hong Kong sentiments.
Similarly, when Wang Guangya met with young people during his visit, he was asked if Hong Kong people could join China’s diplomatic service. The questioner was evincing interest in a diplomatic career. Hitherto, the only way Hong Kong people could become diplomats was to migrate to Canada and join the Canadian diplomatic service.
But now, it appears, new opportunities may open up as Hong Kong’s relationship with China settles down into a more normal state – regardless of whether or not it is still ‘one country, two systems.’
Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. Now based in Hong Kong, he writes a regular column on Chinese affairs. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, World Policy Journal, China Quarterly, Current History, the Washington Quarterly and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1