2021 NPC Session: NPC’s Hong Kong Electoral Overhaul Decision Explained

Editor’s Note: The NPCSC revised Annexes I and II to the Hong Kong Basic Law on March 30. Our explanation and analysis of Hong Kong’s new election rules is available here.

Another year, another NPC decision on Hong Kong. On Thursday, March 11, the National People’s Congress, with 2895 votes in favor and 1 abstention, approved the Decision on Improving the Electoral System of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Decision) [关于完善香港特别行政区选举制度的决定], which takes immediate effect. The Decision comes on the heels of a series of events in the past two years: mass protests against the Hong Kong government’s extradition bill (since withdrawn), opposition lawmakers’ use of filibusters to delay proceedings, and pro-democracy primaries for the now-postponed 2020 Legislative Council election. (Almost fifty activists involved in the primaries have been charged with violating the Hong Kong National Security Law.) The Decision’s explanatory document cites all those events as evidence of the “clear loopholes and deficiencies” in Hong Kong’s current electoral system—which it says have been exploited by “anti-China, destabilizing elements” to attempt to seize the “power to administer [Hong Kong].” It is therefore “important,” the explanation continues, “to take necessary steps to improve the electoral system and remove existing institutional deficiencies and risks to ensure the administration of Hong Kong by Hong Kong people with patriots as the main body.” The Decision marks the first of those steps. Below, we will first provide an overview of the Decision, before discussing in detail the changes it will make to Hong Kong’s electoral system.

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Demystifying the NPC’s Quasi-Legislative Decisions

As China’s supreme legislature, the NPC and its Standing Committee (NPCSC) make “laws” [法律]—or “statutes,” as we will refer to them below. Statutes in the constitutional sense are legal authorities (1) approved by a majority vote in either legislative body and (2) then promulgated by the P.R.C. President in a presidential order. They are most commonly titled “P.R.C. ××× Law” [中华人民共和国×××法]. Besides statutes, the legislature also routinely passes legal instruments styled as “decisions” [决定] (or occasionally “resolutions” [决议]).[1] Earlier in the spotlight, for instance, was an NPCSC decision that disqualified four pro-democracy Hong Kong legislators. Or the NPC’s May 28, 2020 decision that led to the enactment of the Hong Kong National Security Law. What is the nature of these “decisions”? Are they any different from the statutes? If so, to what extent? As the legislature (the NPCSC, in particular) makes increasing use of decisions, we explore these questions below.

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2020 NPC Session: NPC’s Decision on National Security in Hong Kong Explained (Updated)

UPDATE (May 28, 2020): The NPC adopted this Decision on Thursday with 2878 votes in favor, one against, and six abstentions. Its explanation is available here, and an unofficial English translation is available here. We have updated this explainer in accordance with the Decision’s final text. There are two main changes to the draft: (1) the preamble is longer; and (2) and the scope of authorization under article 6 has been extended to “activities” [活动]—in addition to “conduct” [行为]—that endanger national security. We do not believe the latter change is significant.

Readers would probably know by now that the ongoing NPC session’s agenda includes a new draft Decision on Establishing and Improving the Legal Systems and Implementation Mechanisms for Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region [关于建立健全香港特别行政区维护国家安全的法律制度和执行机制的决定]. This new bill was reviewed once by the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) on May 18 and had been kept a secret until Thursday night. We have studied the draft Decision and its accompanying explanation, and now offer the following explainer in Q&A format, focusing on the Decision’s contents and the legal questions it raises.

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Hong Kong Appeals Court Affirmed Judiciary’s Power to Invalidate Unconstitutional Pre-Handover Laws Despite Contrary NPCSC Decision

On Thursday, April 9, the Hong Kong Court of Appeal (Court or COA) affirmed in part and reversed in part a lower court ruling from last November that partially invalidated the city’s “mask ban”: a prohibition on wearing facial covering that prevents identification in certain public gatherings. In sum, the Court upheld the colonial-era emergency law serving as the legal basis for the ban and allowed the government to enforce the ban in unauthorized public gatherings. Below we will focus on a section of the COA’s opinion that held that Hong Kong courts may strike down laws enacted before Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China that are later found to violate the Hong Kong Basic Law, notwithstanding a prior determination by the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) to the contrary.

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NPCSC Legislative Affairs Commissions Criticizes Hong Kong Court’s Mask Ban Ruling, Signals Possible NPCSC Intervention

To not bury the lede, we start by noting that the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) issued a statement (Xinhua’s English report) today (November 19) criticizing a Hong Kong court’s ruling yesterday that partially invalidated a Hong Kong statute for violating the Hong Kong Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. The statement suggested that the NPCSC, with the ultimate authority over the interpretation of the Basic Law (see art. 158), might decide to adopt a contrary interpretation. We more fully explain the relevant events and legal arguments below.

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