China: Changing HK through redefinitions

September 17, 2020 08:06
Photo: RTHK

The ability to manipulate words and what they mean is a source of power in all societies, especially in China, with its long literary tradition.

Under Chairman Mao Zedong, workers were in theory the masters of the country while intellectuals were often criticized as “class enemies.” But Deng Xiaoping, by redefining workers to include mental as well as manual laborers, made intellectuals ideologically respectable.

The powerful tool of definition, and redefinition, is being brought to bear now in Hong Kong. Five months ago, it was over the scope of article 22 of the Basic Law, which ruled out interference by central government offices in Hong Kong.

In April, both the central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office denounced opposition members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council for “malicious filibustering” over a six-month period that prevented the legislature from functioning normally. Opposition legislators cried “interference”!

The HKMAO said that the central government had the authority of oversight over the Hong Kong government to ensure that authorized power was properly exercised. The Liaison Office, it was explained, has the responsibility to oversee major affairs related to the relationship between the central government and Hong Kong.

The Carrie Lam administration quickly accepted the oversight role of the Liaison Office.

However, it is striking that oversight was not among the functions listed by the State Council in its notice to the Hong Kong administration on 15 January 2000 about establishing the Liaison Office, formerly named the Xinhua News Agency.

Now, a new issue has arisen, whether there is separation of powers in Hong Kong.

The question was never asked before because there was general acceptance that separation of powers was institutionalized in Hong Kong.

The first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, on July 1, 1997, the day Hong Kong became a Chinese Special Administrative Region, delivered an address in which he declared that his administration would “continue to ensure that the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government will operate independently.”

The first Chief Justice, Andrew Li, at his first opening of the legal year address in January 1998, said: “Judicial independence is a core element in the cardinal principle of the separation of powers.”

But, it now turns out, everyone has been wrong for the last 23 years. At the beginning of this month, Chief Executive Lam created a sensation by saying that there is no such thing as separation of powers in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, she said, has a system led by the Chief Executive, who is above all three branches of government.

Each branch, she said, must perform its own function and, in doing so, check and balance the other branches. But, in the end, it is the Chief Executive and no one else who is accountable to the central government. Accountability makes her office the highest in the land.

Chief Executive Lam pointed out that, according to the Basic Law, she has a “dual role,” being both the head of the government and the head of the region. According to the Basic Law, she pointed out, “I am responsible to both the Central People’s Government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

Using a word reminiscent of the role of Xi Jinping – who is the “core” leader in China – Lam said she is the “core” in Hong Kong, whose role is to implement the Beijing-authorized system.

What is the point of insisting that Hong Kong doesn’t have a system of separation of powers while at the same time talking about the three branches checking and balancing each other?

It seems that China, which must be behind this, just as it was behind the assertion of the right to “oversee” Hong Kong, has something in mind.

The Liaison Office, in a statement, charged that those who advocate separation of powers wanted “to resist the central government’s comprehensive governance over Hong Kong and challenge the constitutional order of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

Presumably, then, removal of the concept would make it easier for Beijing to exercise its jurisdiction in Hong Kong by working through a cooperative chief executive who is not encumbered by an independent judiciary and an elected legislature.

As Lam pointed out, the Basic Law says the Chief Executive is accountable both to the central government and to Hong Kong. Lam has expounded at some length her responsibility to Beijing. So far, however, she has not set out in any detail how the people of Hong Kong can hold her accountable. But that, too, is a Basic Law responsibility.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.