Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s declaration on Tuesday that there’s no separation of powers in Hong Kong has sparked a wide, and often confusing debate on whether or how the term applies to the city.
Even pro-establishment figures appeared to differ in their assessments of the nature of the relationship between Hong Kong’s three branches of government.
“I believe that there is still separation of powers in Hong Kong”, lawyer and pro-establishment lawmaker Junius Ho told RTHK, in an apparent departure from Lam’s position.
But he immediately qualified his statement, saying while he thinks “there is a division of the obligations and also the responsibility [between the three arms of government]... it doesn't mean that each facet itself can really be… independent in the sense that they can just do whatever they like without due regard, [or] having regard to the overall circumstances."
Ho stressed that the overarching principle is that the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government must all work together for the good of Hong Kong.
"So we all believe that the big G – the big government itself – must include three divisions – namely the executive, the legislature, and also the judiciary – so all these three are interlinked, and interwoven with each other. Although they each have their own terms of reference and also the responsibility, at the end of the day, all these three divisions are responsible for the Hong Kong SAR, generally."
Lawmaker, barrister, and Basic Law Committee member Priscilla Leung, meanwhile, was more explicit in her support of Carrie Lam’s position, saying Hong Kong’s government has been an executive-led system since the handover, and cannot be described as one that involves the separation of powers.
She added that the Central Government must have a role in all three arms, saying Beijing has the final power over important executive decisions
At the same time, she said the three branches have checks and balances on one another – even if there is no formal separation of powers.
Senior counsel and executive councillor Ronny Tong, for his part, suggested that the separation of powers both exists, and doesn’t.
“It is really an argument about nothing”, he concluded.
Tong said the answer depends on your perspective.
“If you’re talking about separation of powers as part of the constitutional order, then no, there isn’t, because all the powers of Hong Kong comes from the Central government under the Basic Law, the Chief Executive is responsible for the whole of Hong Kong to be accountable to the central government”, he said.
“But… if you’re talking about separation of powers as a political concept, then obviously there is a certain degree of division of governing power in Hong Kong, and there are sufficient checks and balances to satisfy any meaning of separation of powers.”