What exactly is Hong Kong’s Executive Council and why does it matter?

The city’s top policy-making body advises the chief executive and has at times generated political drama

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 8:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 4:57pm

Hong Kong’s incoming leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has announced 16 names to join her cabinet, the Executive Council (Exco), as non-official members. The 16 will work with 16 principal government officials appointed on Wednesday.

Exco is the top policy-making body of the Hong Kong government. It does not function like a close-knit body as in democracies like Britain, but the chief executive nonetheless treats it as his or her de facto cabinet. Over the years, it has occasionally been a source of political drama.

What is Exco’s relationship with the city’s leader and the Legislative Council? How does it operate? A few answers follow.

1. What is the role of Exco?

The Executive Council has existed since Hong Kong’s colonial days. Under the executive-led administrative structure of the British colonial government, the governor appointed prominent social figures and business elites to Exco as his advisers.

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In the 1980s, when drafting a mini-constitution for the city in the run-up to the 1997 handover, mainland officials wanted to continue concentrating power in the executive branch, with one change: a government in which the chief executive would be appointed by the government.

Accordingly, the system was written into the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. It defines Exco as “an organ for assisting the chief executive in policymaking”. The chief executive is to consult Exco before making important policy decisions, or introducing bills to the legislature, or dissolving the legislature.

As the chief executive is forbidden by law to be a member of any political party, Exco effectively becomes his cabinet, although members need not have close ideological or personal ties to the leader.

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Exco’s convenor – generally thought to be an esteemed social figure – ranks seventh in the government’s precedence list when arranging officials’ line-up order in public ceremonies, comparable to the head of the legislature.

2. Who make up Exco?

The Basic Law stipulates Exco shall comprise “public figures” as well as principal government officials and lawmakers. It does not specify the number of seats. The outgoing administration has 15 non-official members, including lawmakers; the incoming one will have 16.

In a political system designed to preclude any party from becoming a ruling bloc, the leader must think of ways to find allies to ensure his policies can gain passage in the legislature.

Tung Chee-hwa, the city’s first post-handover chief executive, attempted to forge a governing coalition after he was re-elected in 2002. He appointed the heads of three pro-establishment parties to Exco in exchange for pledges that the parties’ lawmakers would unconditionally back government bills.

Finally, Exco members must be Chinese citizens as well as Hong Kong permanent residents with no right of abode in any foreign country.

3. Has Exco always served as a strong governing coalition?

Not always. The collapse of the coalition in 2003 over the national security bill was a case in point. That year, the Liberal Party’s James Tien Pei-chun quit Exco in protest over Tung’s decision to put forward the controversial bill deemed a threat to people’s rights and freedoms. His resignation came five days after a demonstration drawing half a million people into the streets and prompted Tung to shelve the bill.

The political crisis triggered an Exco reshuffle, and since then, vice-chairmen of pro-Beijing parties have typically sat on the body. Their support for government policies was therefore not as strong as before.

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But now Carrie Lam has appointed two political party chairmen to her cabinet. It remains to be seen how much support she can garner from the pro-government bloc in pushing new bills through Legco.

It may not be easy. Wong Kwok-kin, a lawmaker with the Federation of Trade Unions and a new addition to Exco, has already declared that he may not always toe the government line when there is voting in Legco, especially on controversial labour policies such as standard working hours legislation.

4. How does Exco operate? What are its governing rules? Have there been any breaches?

Exco meets every Tuesday morning. Sometimes it has preparatory meetings on Mondays.

It operates on confidentiality and a principle of collective responsibility.

Meeting minutes are not made public. It is up to the administration to determine when and how Exco decisions are announced.

If the chief executive does not accept a majority opinion, he or she shall put the specific reasons on record.

There have been breaches of confidentiality, such as in 2012, when former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen spoke against his rival Leung Chun-ying amid the chief executive race. During a televised debate, Tang explosively claimed that Leung suggested at a 2003 Exco meeting that the government deploy riot police and tear gas on demonstrators marching against the national security bill.

While Leung and his supporters who served on Exco denied Leung had made such a suggestion, they accused Tang, perhaps paradoxically, of breaching confidentiality.

In addition, there were times when the government drew accusations of hiding behind confidentiality and failing to be accountable to the public.

For example, in 2013, Leung, by then chief executive, cited Exco’s confidentiality rule in refusing to say if it was a majority view among members that an application for a free-to-air broadcasting licence by Hong Kong Television Network should be rejected. The decision to deny the company, run by maverick businessman Ricky Wong Wai-kay, sparked public outcry as people voiced a “right to watch quality TV”.

Afterwards, Leung was slammed by former Exco members such as Selina Chow Liang Suk-yee, who said it was unacceptable for the chief executive to use the confidentiality rule to justify not explaining the decision.

Allen Lee Peng-fei, an Exco member from 1985 to 1992, said during his tenure the body always prepared a statement to explain and defend its decisions. He claimed Leung had misunderstood the confidentiality rule.

And there have been other breaches. Leung was once criticised for making political gain when as convenor he broke ranks and slammed the administration of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen for its unwillingness to reintroduce a popular subsidised housing scheme. His public dissent was seen as a move to gain support before he announced his bid for the city’s 2012 leadership election.

5. Has any Exco member faced consequences for breaches?

Exco members must declare their interests in property and company ownership as well as directorships. They should also withdraw from discussions presenting a conflict of interests.

Yet the repercussions for breaches are political rather than legal. Franklin Lam Fan-keung was forced to resign from Exco in 2012 after allegations surfaced that, while serving on the body, he had sold two flats ahead of the imposition of new housing stamp duties.

Although the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the city’s anti-graft agency, later cleared Lam, he was not re-appointed.