The government of Hong Kong has given confirmation that the new national security law’s Chinese version will dominate over the English translation if there is any difference between the two. This is a stark departure from the official language policy of the city, which gives the same importance to both of the languages.
However, one lawyer who noted inconsistencies between the two versions opposed the move. According to him, he had never witnessed a piece of legislation drafted so poorly. A judge who had retired admitted he was struggling to comprehend the English version.
A couple of hours after government gazette law in Chinese, the news agency in Xinhua state released a translation but highlighted it as “a reference” and that it does not have official standing. The English version (official) was published on the website of the government only on Friday 3 days post the law coming into effect.
The aim of the law is to punish and stop acts of terrorism, subversion, secession, and collusion with overseas parties and forces, with the lawbreakers facing up to life in prison.
English and Chinese possess the same status according to Official Languages Ordinance and benefit from the fairness of use for corresponding between the public and the government.
The Justice Department confirmed Chinese was the new law’s official language owing to the fact that it was a national law that the standing committee enacted. A spokesman said, “During the enforcement of the law by various government bureaus and departments, if necessary, they could seek legal advice from the Department of Justice.”
However, Alan Wong Hok-ming, a practicing solicitor, questioned whether the administration had grounds to decide the Chinese version would triumph.
Wong said that this was not acceptable. He also added, “the government needs to tell us which piece of legislation supports its statement about Chinese as the official language of this new law. You can’t just decide on your own. The government should have the letter of the law to support its statement.”
Yet he noted that the law did not say that the version of the Chinese language would prevail.
Wong said, “But as there isn’t such a provision in the law, it means that the government’s statement doesn’t have any legal effect.”
Wong highlighted the discrepancies between the two texts. As a case to point, the English version’s Article 9 and 10 pertinent to the supervision of matters regarding national security have the expression “universities,” whereas the Chinese one simply refers to the word “schools.”
In Article 29 about plotting with foreign parties, the translation of joint enterprise liability is “the institution, organization and individual referred to in the first paragraph of this article shall be convicted and punished for the same offense”.
According to Wong, this was a substandard translation. He said, “Offenders under a joint enterprise are subjected to different offenses according to their roles and participation. But the English version only simplifies this offense as one ‘convicted and punished for the same offense’. This is not the way how Hong Kong’s law is written”.
Wong predicted that issues would surface if Chinese was the law’s official version. He said, “How will foreign judges or lawyers understand this law? This is a problem the authorities need to address”.
However, Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, Basic Law Committee member, defended the decision of the government.
Leung said, “It is a national law. And there is actually not an official English version. So we should refer to the Chinese text if there is discrepancy”. Furthermore, she added, “Sometimes, on the mainland, there are authorized English translations of court verdicts after a case is decided, so foreigners can also understand the law and the verdicts. But for the judge, he or she will only base a ruling on the Chinese text of a law.”
Henry Litton, a former Court of Final Appeal judge, revealed to the Post he was facing difficulty comprehending the law’s English translation. He said, “I do have some problems with the language in Xinhua’s version. I am, at present, struggling (with the help of a friend) with the Chinese text”.