In a controversial political move, Hong Kong delegates to China's parliament have called on Beijing to help with the issue of mainland women who go to Hong Kong to give birth to a baby with permanent resident status in the former British colony.
The issue is one of many that has troubled relations between residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), which has run a separate law enforcement and immigration regime since its handover to China in 1997, and mainland Chinese in recent months.
But critics have hit out at the move by pro-Beijing politicians and business leaders to enlist China's help, fearing that it could erode the territory's political autonomy.
"This issue is a huge attack on Hong Kong's judicial system," said top lawyer and democratic legislator Ronny Tong. "In particular it represents a blow to public trust in the Court of Final Appeal."
China's National People's Congress (NPC) is the highest power to interpret Hong Kong law, but only after the territory's own legal processes have been exhausted at the final appeals court, which was set up in 1997 to take over the role filled by the House of Lords in Hong Kong's colonial era.
"We believe that this should not be discussed lightly," Tong said on Monday. "This is really unnecessary at this stage."
Tong, a Civic Party lawmaker in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, said current quotas allowing up to 33,500 mainland couples to give birth in Hong Kong should be revised.
Surge in births
"If we were to scrap that quota, then some gaps in medical care could then be improved," he said.
The number of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong's heavily subsidized hospitals has surged from just 709 in 2000 to 33,499 in 2011.
Babies born to couples who are both from mainland China and have never contributed to Hong Kong's economy, social security, or tax revenues, now make up 38 percent of the territory's birth rate, according to Hong Kong government figures.
But Hong Kong NPC delegate Maria Tam defended the move.
"If it is your responsibility to discuss such matters, then you should discuss them positively and make your opinions known," she said.
"This is not aimed at the Hong Kong government, nor at any person, and the ball is actually in the Hong Kong government's court."
Tam said that the problem of mainland couples giving birth in Hong Kong is "very serious" and can only be resolved through an interpretation of the law.
She said current measures have only shunted responsibility for limiting the numbers of mainland women who give birth in Hong Kong onto the shoulders of neighboring Guangdong provincial authorities.
Challenge to authority?
The ultimate power to interpret Hong Kong's miniconstitution, the Basic Law, rests with the NPC.
NPC standing committee member Rita Fan denied criticisms that the motion calling on the NPC for an interpretation sets up a second center of power outside the Hong Kong SAR, which governs its own affairs in all areas except defense and foreign policy.
"There is no intention of challenging the authority of the Hong Kong government," Fan said. "The measures that have been brought in by the SAR government ... attack the symptom but not the cause of the problem."
Meanwhile, lawmaker Jeffrey Lam, who is also a National Committee member of the NPC's sister body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), has announced plans to submit a draft private members bill in a bid to change the immigration rules on mainland mothers.
He says the bill will address the problem of babies born here to parents who are not local permanent residents.
And Basic Law Institute chairman Alan Hoo has hit out at the request for an interpretation from the NPC, saying it would be best for the Hong Kong government to amend its own domestic laws.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.