South China Morning Post, 5 March 2017
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has for the first time publicly denounced the notion of Hong Kong independence in his annual work report, warning that the movement would “lead nowhere”.
While Beijing’s firm rejection of such separatist sentiments is well-known, the mention of Hong Kong independence in the annual government report was unprecedented. It is likely to be read as a strong signal to candidates of the coming chief executive election that the winner would be expected to handle the issue without compromise.
In keeping with the warning, Li said Beijing was committed to the principle of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, without it being “bent or distorted”.
Li’s comments came as he addressed the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People and announced the annual economic targets for 2017, a year when the ruling Communist Party will witness a major power reshuffle at home and wrestle with myriad uncertainties abroad.
For this year, China aims to achieve GDP growth of “about 6.5 per cent, or higher if possible in practice”. A growth rate near 6.5 per cent will mean limited deceleration, if at all, from the actual 6.7 per cent growth recorded last year.
Li said the government planned to keep the fiscal deficit at 3 per cent of GDP – unchanged from last year – and implement a “prudent and neutral” monetary policy, signalling Beijing’s restraint in pursuing debt-fuelled growth.
Instead, China would be highly alert to “accumulated risks” in areas of non-performing assets, bond default, shadow banking and internet finance.
Several times in his speech, Li also referred to Xi as the “core” of the Chinese leadership. He said the party’s decision to enshrine Xi as “the core” was in line with “the fundamental interests of the party and the people”.
Li also said China would host a “high-quality” “One Belt, One Road” summit this year to promote the outward-oriented strategy and that it would press on with a “city cluster in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area”.
While these pledges were typical of the key messages Li’s annual address contained, his brief but blunt comment about calls for Hong Kong independence became a talking point.
Hong Kong was rocked by controversy last October when two pro-independence lawmakers distorted their oath-taking with pro-independence slogans and insults against the nation.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee interpreted the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini constitution – to make “insincere” oath-taking punishable by instant disqualification.
Li told the legislature: “We will continue to implement, both to the letter and in spirit, the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, under which Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong.”
He added that the central government would continue to “act in strict compliance with China’s constitution” and the Basic Law.
“We will ensure that the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ is steadfastly applied in Hong Kong and Macau without being bent or distorted … The notion of independence will lead nowhere.”
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who attended the opening ceremony, said Hong Kong should guard against calls for Hong Kong independence. “It could harm the interest of Hong Kong and the nation if it’s not properly handled,” Leung said.
Asked if Li’s warning on Hong Kong independence when the issue was dying down could unwittingly give advocates media exposure, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference delegate Lau Siu-kai said the premier had little choice.
“Li has to mention it because the mainland people see Hong Kong and Taiwan independence as important issues,” Lau said.
Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a member of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said the controversial oath-taking was “the most important political event of the year”.
“Therefore, it is appropriate for the premier to mention that one sentence on independence and make things clear in his report,” she said.
Basic Law Committee member Rao Geping said Li Keqiang’s warning on independence highlighted the need for Hong Kong to make its own law on national security and fulfil its responsibility under Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Yesterday, all three chief executive candidates – Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, John Tsang Chun-wah and Woo Kwok-hing – swiftly echoed Li’s rebuke and condemned Hong Kong independence. Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said the mention meant Beijing had officially acknowledged the existence of separatist sentiments which it perceived as “growing and threatening”.
In his address, Li also reiterated the central government’s full support to the chief executives and governments of Hong Kong and Macau in exercising “law-based governance, growing their economies, improving people’s livelihood, advancing democracy and promoting social harmony”.
Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam, Ng Kang-chung and Laura Zhou