Stephen LAM: Defender of Hong Kong's beliefs

Last week, we had a motion debate in the Legislative Council which touched on the core values of Hong Kong. In the main, the debate evolved around freedoms, human rights, the rule of law and democracy.

Freedom of speech is very much alive in Hong Kong. The fact that radio talk-show hosts and callers to various programmes continue to express their views freely on air bears testimony to this.

The rule of law has remained intact since reunification. Since 1997, there have been 1,900 judicial review cases in which the government's position has been challenged. This demonstrates that the government and individuals are all equal before the law.

The Basic Law is the new constitutional foundation for Hong Kong. The power of interpreting the Basic Law rests with the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, while the Court of Final Appeal has the power of final adjudication over court cases.

This arrangement realises the resumption of the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong on one hand, while preserving the common law tradition, on the other. The Standing Committee's interpretation of the Basic Law in April clarifies the legislative procedures required for changing the electoral systems. This provides us with a clear legal foundation in taking things forward.

The government is firmly committed to keeping the upcoming Legco election free, open and honest. The police have immediately begun investigations over suspected cases of improper filing of voter registration forms.

With the publication of the third report by the Constitutional Development Taskforce, different political parties have joined our seminars to put forward specific ideas on electoral reform. We hope that, in time, this will engender a consensus on the way forward. Hong Kong is a unique society. Long before democratic elections to Legco were initiated in the mid-1980s, Hong Kong was already one of the freest societies in Asia, with the rule of law well established. This has been made possible through a variety of circumstances.

We have the common law as our legal foundation. We set up our first law school in the late 1960s, enabling us to groom local legal talent. They have become judges and legislators. The Independent Commission Against Corruption was established in the 1970s to strengthen the rule of law and to safeguard a level playing field. The establishment of the Court of Final Appeal preserves our common-law system. And we also have the Bill of Rights. Our current institutions are adequate enough to protect freedoms, human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong. The pursuit of democracy represents another collective challenge for the community. The ultimate aim of universal suffrage enshrined in the Basic Law is accepted by all. The current debate on constitutional development should, therefore, be about the pace and form of further progress. We should ensure that any change in our electoral systems would be conducive to enhancing governance, balancing the interests of different sectors and broadening the representativeness of our electoral systems.

Ever since the days of the Joint Declaration, government colleagues have strived to strengthen our institutions.

We will endeavour to build a consensus that brings our electoral systems closer to the ultimate aim of universal suffrage.

In the final analysis, Hong Kong's core values are not the preserve of the government or any political organisation. They represent the beliefs of Hong Kong people and they underpin our way of life.

The government, political parties and all who have a role to play in public life have a common mission to protect these values in the interest of the people of Hong Kong.

Stephen Lam Sui-lung is Secretary for Constitutional Affairs.