Political commentators in Hong Kong on Monday hit out at remarks by Beijing's top official in the former British colony, who said that the separate and independent powers of the executive, judiciary and legislature aren't suitable for the city.
The head of China's liaison office in the semiautonomous city, Zhang Xiaoming, sparked fears that the territory's traditional way of life would be further eroded after he said that the chief executive’s powers surpass those of the legislature and judiciary and that the separation of powers "does not suit Hong Kong."
Zhang told guests at an event to mark the 25th anniversary of the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, on Saturday, that Hong Kong won't implement the "Western practice of the separation of powers."
"The dual responsibility of chief executive to the central government and Hong Kong has given him a special legal position which is above the executive, legislative and judicial institutions," Zhang told the forum.
"Hong Kong is not a political system that exercises the separation of powers," he added.
But pan-democratic lawmaker Frederick Fung said the separation of powers is enshrined in the Basic Law itself.
"All of this, the powers of the chief executive, the power of the administration and of the legislature is all set down clearly in the Basic Law," Fung told RFA.
"I can't see anything in there that says that the chief executive has the power to change the decisions of the Legislative Council, or of the judiciary, so it's a very strange thing to say."
No overlap of powers
Fung said that while the work of the city's Legislative Council had largely been led by policy initiatives from the executive since the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, there are still no areas in which the powers of the three arms of government overlap.
"As legislators, we have nothing to do with the judiciary; we don't meet with them, nor should we," Fung said. "In the Legislative Council, our work for the past decade or more has been to debate the policies put forward by the executive."
Pro-establishment figures quickly moved to play down Zhang's comments, saying they weren't intended to signal the end of Hong Kong's way of life.
According to Hong Kong and Macau Research Institute deputy director Liu Zhaojia, Hong Kong's separation of powers is under the general leadership of the chief executive, while constitutional expert Albert Chen said the chief executive's "higher powers" are largely of a symbolic nature.
Hong Kong independent book publisher and current affairs commentator Wu Yisan disagreed, however.
"It was extremely silly of Zhang Xiaoming to say such a thing," Wu said. "If the chief executive really did have a higher level of power than the three arms of government, he'd be the emperor of Hong Kong, wouldn't he?"
"The judiciary, the legislative and the executive arms of government are all independent of each other, which is a tradition that has endured for more than 100 years," Wu said.
"This was set up on the basis of the Western political model and values, and has supported our peaceful development."
Different political culture
Wu said Zhang, as a high-ranking official in the ruling Chinese Communist Party, comes from a totally different political culture, where the separation of powers is anathema.
"What he means when he says that the chief executive stands above the separation of powers, is that the Communist Party stands above the separation of powers," he said.
Wu said the role of the chief executive from Beijing's point of view is far more than a mere puppet.
"His job, when it comes down to it, is to use [the threat of] Beijing as a way of keeping Hong Kong under control."
Alan Leong, leader of the pan-democratic Civic Party, said Zhang’s words "gave him the shivers."
"If [current chief executive] Leung Chun-ying is above legislative, executive and judicial powers, then what’s the difference between Leung Chun-ying and a feudal emperor?" Leong told RTHK.
Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" under the terms of its 1997 return to Chinese rule, within the "one country, two systems" framework agreed between British and Chinese officials and enshrined in the Basic Law.
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration treaty also promised that the city's way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years, although Chinese officials have since said they are no longer bound by it.
Zhang's remarks have sparked a storm of speculation in the city's media, which is relatively outspoken compared with state-run media across the internal border in mainland China.
"Did Zhang just pronounce the end of Hong Kong as we know it and ushered in 2047, the year 'one country, two systems' expires, 32 years early?" the Hong Kong Economic Journal said in an editorial on Monday, adding that the announcement had "come like a bolt from the blue."
"Beijing’s tinkering with this governing principle has come at the expense of Hong Kong’s core values which are anchored on the constitutional separation of powers," the paper said.
"Its political system of checks and balances has sheltered its people from abuse by the powers that be and ensured their way of life, without fear it will be taken away by their government," it said.
"Beijing keeps saying it’s proud of the success of 'one country, two systems,' but the fact is it does not know how Hong Kong works," the article said.
Democratic Party founder Martin Lee told government broadcaster RTHK that Zhang's comments were "very scary," adding that the chief executive can't have unchecked power.
But Leung's second-in-command Carrie Lam said that "no sensible person" will assume the chief executive has unchecked power.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.