Zhang's comments will only deepen the distrust toward Beijing

September 17, 2015 17:14
Zhang Xiaoming publicly placed the CE above the law so that central government can continue its manipulation behind the scenes, critics say. Photo: HKEJ

After the defeat of the 2017 political reform proposal by a clear majority in the Legco in June, Zhang Xiaoming, director of Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, had said that he won't comment on local politics anymore.

However, he has now dropped a bombshell by publicly declaring that the chief executive has "superior power" over all branches of the government in Hong Kong. He also said that the separation of powers had never been truly practiced in the city before and after the handover, since Hong Kong was not a sovereign state. Hence, the principle of “checks and balances” could at best be used as a reference.

It is obvious that Zhang was deliberately trying to spark another round of controversy with his highly provocative remarks.

Although the reasons why he was doing so could be many, it sounds logical to infer that Zhang did so in order to spare himself trouble: after the political reform package had been vetoed by Legco both Zhang Xiaoming and Leung Chun-ying found that their jobs were on the line.

In a desperate attempt to save his job, Zhang had no choice but to unilaterally place Leung above the law, so that the Liaison Office would look more legally justified in continuing to manipulate the SAR government behind the scene and play the role as the secondary governing centre in Hong Kong.

In fact Zhang wasn't entirely wrong when he said the separation of powers had never been practiced in our city, since there isn’t any clause in the Basic Law specifying that the government in Hong Kong must be separated into three independent branches. However, Zhang’s tactic could also backfire, as there is no clause either in the Basic Law specifying that the Hong Kong administration must follow the doctrine of "executive dominance".

Zhang's controversial interpretation of the Basic Law in fact indicates a fundamental weakness in the law itself: back in the 80s when the Basic Law was drafted, it was only intended by Beijing as a mere tool to sustain the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong after 1997. Moreover, framers of the law, most of whom were handpicked by Beijing, lacked political vision and failed to foresee the political environment after the handover.

To make matters worse, they naively believed that the system that had governed Hong Kong so well during their time would also work nicely after the handover, so all they needed to do was to copy everything and put them in the Basic Law.

The continued political turmoil and social conflict that our city has witnessed since the handover have proven that they were totally wrong and that the old system simply just didn’t work under new circumstances.

As a matter of fact, the whole idea of “One Country Two Systems” conceived by former leader Deng Xiaoping was rather sloppy in nature, and he also bore the wishful thinking that the change of government in Hong Kong would only entail changing the flag and the governor, and all it would take to guarantee the continued prosperity of Hong Kong was for the future chief executive to keep everything unchanged and follow the beaten path.

It is true that the former colonial system was highly effective and executive dominance was fully practiced by the colonial government. Unfortunately, the communist party failed to understand that successful experience in its full historical context.

What they failed to foresee was that what worked in the past doesn't necessarily work in the future. In the meantime, the fact that the Basic Law promises that Hong Kong will achieve universal suffrage in a "step-by-step and orderly manner" also means volatility in the political environment of Hong Kong after 1997, and that the mode of government adopted by the British may not work anymore.

Our city could indeed have been spared much of its predicament if the former leaders in Beijing had been able to foresee that.

Over the years since the handover the SAR government has failed to establish its credibility and gain popularity, despite all the attempts made by former chief executives Tung Chee-wah and Donald Tsang such as the introduction of the accountability system and the formation of alliance with pro-establishment parties.

Under Leung Chun-ying’s administration things simply have got worse and worse.

Whether or not Zhang’s remarks were intended as a preemptive move to set the tone for the next CE election or as a way to save his job, it doesn’t change the fact that his words were highly unpopular and were in violation of the core values of the Hong Kong people.

All they did was deepen public distrust of Beijing and Leung Chun-ying. On the other hand, it has proven that the Basic Law has completely lost touch with the political reality in Hong Kong, and unless it is massively rewritten, the realization of true democracy in the city under “One Country Two Systems” would be something impossible.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 16.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist