The situation in Hong Kong has reached a tipping point. But a judicial dispute has erupted over the city's ban on wearing masks in public, a legal instrument the SAR government introduced last month to deter violent behavior by unidentifiable individuals.
On Monday, the city's high court ruled that the ban was "unconstitutional,"citing its legal basis, the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, formulated during Britain's rule, contains provisions incompatible with the Basic Law.
The next day, a spokesman for China's top legislature – the National People's Congress (or NPC) – criticized the decision, stressing the Ordinance's consistency with the Basic Law. He also stressed the question of "constitutionality" of Hong Kong laws "can only be judged and decided by the NPC Standing Committee."
What is this dispute all about? Three critical questions must be answered:
*First, who has the right to say if the ban is legally OK or not?
*Second, is the ban good for Hong Kong?
*And finally, what does the statement say about HK's degree of autonomy?
The answer to the first question is simple. As China's highest organ of state power, the NPC has the sole right to formulate, amend or abolish the national constitution and Hong Kong's Basic Law. Likewise, it has the sole right to interpret any provisions, and to judge whether any other law is constitutional or not.
The Emergency Regulations Ordinance is indeed a legacy of Britain's rule, but in February 1997, the NPC adopted the Ordinance as a law for Hong Kong. That means the anti-mask law has a sound legal basis, and the NPC finds no problem with it. The Hong Kong High Court's judges may opine, argue or file petitions. But they have no power to rule on it.
The next question: Is the ban good for Hong Kong? Think about it. People who act decently in face-to-face dialogue may behave entirely differently on social media when anonymous. In Hong Kong, we see black-clad mobs engaged in increasingly dangerous activities. Yet once their face masks are taken off, many immediately change their behavior.
Why? If real names are a partial solution to online abuse, why not show real faces on the street? I have nothing against peaceful protest, but people should also be held accountable for their words and deeds. The ban has proven helpful in this sense. That's also why many countries ban face masks in public gatherings.
As for the third question: What does this ban mean for HK's high degree of autonomy? The NPC may take some action, perhaps by reintroducing the ban. That would only mean taking back its own legal power from an overreaching, self-mandated local court, while still leaving it largely to the regional government and police forces to do their job.
In other words, the relationship remains "One Country, Two Systems" in nature, but with both elements reinforced and better integrated. To the High Court of Hong Kong, the message is: "Know thy place."
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