Hong Kong Basic Law

Hong Kong justice chief doesn't take sides in separation of powers debate

Rimsky Yuen says concept could be political or a governing principle, as ex-minister joins debate

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 12:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 8:01am

The justice secretary on Thursday refused to take sides after the city's top judge and Beijing's highest official in Hong Kong came down on opposite ends of a debate over the concept of separation of powers in the city.

Speaking on the sidelines of a trade symposium in Jakarta, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said the concept could be described "as a political doctrine, [or] a principle of governance".

The question of separation of powers has been debated since Saturday, when liaison office chief Zhang Xiaoming said the concept was not applicable to Hong Kong, and that the chief executive had a "transcendent" role, above the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

Yuen, who is on record as invoking the concept at least once in the previous year, was speaking a day after Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li made a rare statement to the media on the importance of judicial independence. Ma cited provisions of the Basic Law that set out the separate roles of the three branches of government.

In Hong Kong yesterday, former constitutional affairs minister Michael Suen Ming-yeung joined the fray, saying he did not understand why Zhang had said the chief executive enjoyed a "transcendent legal position".

Suen, who admitted he had not read Zhang's speech in full, said the liaison official should consider clarifying his remarks, which had given rise to much doubt and speculation.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had previously called for people not to take Zhang's remarks out of context. While saying his role was "indeed transcendent", Leung said he was subject to the law.

Leung, who also attended the Jakarta symposium, did not comment on calls for Zhang to explain himself further.

"The central authorities' remarks have always been supportive of the SAR government and the chief executive governing according to the law," he said. "This, of course, includes the Basic Law" and its provisions on the judiciary.

He did not comment on whether Ma's sudden media appearance reflected fear within the judiciary.

Meanwhile, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen endorsed Zhang's comments. "There was nothing in what [Zhang] said that was inconsistent with objective fact and the Basic Law," he said.

Additional reporting by Joyce Ng