China backs HK court on sovereign immunity

BEIJING - Chinese lawmakers on Friday upheld a decision by Hong Kong’s top court that a country cannot be sued there, in a ruling with far-reaching implications for the former British colony.

Hong Kong’s court of final appeal ruled in June that the city’s justice system could not be used to sue the Democratic Republic of Congo because of China’s position that all sovereign states should be immune from prosecution.

The National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament, said it had upheld the ruling.

The NPC ruled that Hong Kong’s laws on state immunity must “be consistent with the rules or policies on state immunity that the central government has adopted", said Li Fei, deputy director of the NPC’s committee on Hong Kong Basic Law.

The case revolves around US-based fund FG Hemisphere Associates which is reportedly trying to reclaim over $100 million from the Congo in a commercial dispute case. The debts were being held in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, a former British colony which was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, maintains a semi-autonomous status with its own political and legal system, and guarantees civil liberties not seen on mainland China.

The Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, provides Hong Kong’s government with a high level of autonomy except in defence and foreign affairs, in which Beijing has the final say.

Critics have said the move by Hong Kong, known for its daily protests and vibrant civil society, to seek Beijing’s interpretation on the matter undermines the city’s judicial independence.

It was also argued that any ruling in favour of Congo would damage the reputation of the city, where many multinational companies are based, as an international financial hub.

Supporters of seeking Beijing’s interpretation, however, said the move was the right one, as sovereign immunity falls under foreign affairs where Hong Kong has no jurisdiction.