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Hong Kong's Executive-Led System

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Executive-Led System refers to the constitutional design of the political system of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), which the Executive branch enjoys more advantages in policy initiations and implementations over other branches especially the Legislative Council (LegCo).

Its spirit originated from the design of colonial government and was inherited by HKSAR after the handover in 1997. Despite its idea of granting the Executive branch political advantages, the executive-led system is considered as one of the major causes of many political dilemmas in Hong Kong due to its practical limitations.

The Origins of the Executive-Led System[edit]

Beijing's Wish to Uphold an Executive-Led System[edit]

Beijing aimed at replicating the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong during the colonial era, and they believed that an executive-led government was the key to success[1] . At the same time, the PRC government had arrived at a conclusion that an executive-led system could be a strategy of political supervision by concentrating the power of Chief Executive (CE) and principal appointees [1]. The Basic Law intents to keep Hong Kong in an intact model of executive-led government, and maintain this system after the handover to China’s sovereignty in 1997 [2][3]. The drafters of the Basic Law did not have intention to set up a checks and balances system, and other institutions or branches were expected to remain “subordinate” to the executive branch.[4].

The Beijing government and the conservative members in the drafting committees have put much effort in maintaining the system[3]. Under the Basic Law, the Chief Executive enjoys supreme power. The executive is in control of the Legislative Council , but the LegCo does not have the reciprocal powers[5]. For instance, some articles in the Basic Law provide CE powers to signs bills and budgets, decide government policies and appoint or remove offices of judges. In addition, the CE can veto laws passed by the LegCo or even dissolve it if deadlocks emerge between the executive and legislative branch[5] To ensure the executive-led nature, the power of the LegCo is constricted. The CE and the heads of each major bureau in fact maintain strong influence to policy-making. Except for laws’ alterations and appropriations, most government policies do not require approval from the LegCo[3]. In addition to these, any bills passed by the legislature require CE’s signature before they become effective. CE could reject the bills and ask for legislators’ reconsiderations[3]. Given that the central government would like to avoid a legislative-led situation, a partisan CE is currently ruled out by the Chief Executive Election Committee[3] . This could be illustrated by the fact that both the first and the second CE, Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang, are businessman and civil servants respectively[3].

Demands from the British Government[edit]

The demands for executive-led system of the British government also shaped the model of this system. During the colonial era, electoral system and party politics were not common[3]. According to Anthony B.L. Cheung, he found out that the colonial rule was essentially a form of administrative state that was controlled by the British governor[3]. Besides, Chris Patten, who was the last governor in the colonial administration, also expressed his hopes in an executive-led system. In his first policy speech in 1992, in an attempt to achieve his goals for democratisation, he mentioned Hong Kong “has a vigorous and effective executive-led government which is accountable to the legislature[6]. Although today’s executive-led system is not the same as Patten’s goals, the demands for British governors to implement executive-led system is clear.

Policy-Making Process[edit]

The policy-making process in the colonial era created a well-developed environment for the executive-led system. It was bureaucrats-led and mainly dominated by Administrative Officers (AOs)[2]. Although after the handover, bureaucratic monopoly on policy-making has been weakened, the power of determining political agenda is still concentrated in the hands of ministers in the executive branch[2].

Basic Law[edit]

Although the term executive-led cannot be found in Basic Law, this constitutional document actually plays a major role in determining the executive-led approach[7]. It holds the executive branch in high regard, while downplaying the monitoring and supervising functions of LegCo. This has resulted in an asymmetrical power relationship between the government and the legislature. Some even describe the whole system as “the government has the power but no mandate, while the LegCo has the mandate but it has no power[8].

LegCo’s Weakened Power in Policy-Making[edit]

Basic Law Article 74 limits the power of Legislative councilors in introducing bills related to public expenditure, political structure and operation of the government. Written consent from Chief Executive has to be sought if bills related to government policies are introduced[9]. Chief Executive could impede any introduction of bills regarding modification of government policies from legislative councilors. Constitutionally, the LegCo in the post-handover period could only retain its powers in policy deliberation and oversight, and its ability in policy-making is constricted[8].

LegCo Has Little Say in the Political Appointment System[edit]

Basic Law Article 48 clearly defines the power and functions of Chief Executive. He/She has the power to nominate civil servants of different ranks, such as judges, members and chairman of advisory and statutory committee without approval from the legislature. When nominating principal officials for appointment or removal, the Chief Executive only need to seek permission from the central government. In short, Basic Law concentrates the power of political appointment in the hands of Chief Executive, granting high degree of autonomy in forming his/her governing team[1].

For instance, when it comes to the selection and appointment of Under Secretaries and Political Assistants to Directors of Bureaux, the appointment committee chaired by the Chief Executive is responsible for such matter. Nonetheless, the recruitment criteria are ambiguous, and the whole mechanism is often criticised for its lack of transparency[10]. In short, executive branch is given huge power in the process of nominating principal officials. The legislature, however, has little say in monitoring and supervising the appointment.

LegCo’s Voting System Favours the Government[edit]

It should be noted that government measures could be passed by a simple majority vote in LegCo. In contrast, for motions, bills or amendments introduced by any individual members of Legislative Council, they are subject to the split-voting system installed in Annex II(II) of the Basic Law. Majority votes from each of the 2 blocks (Geographical and Functional constituencies) of members are required[9]. This setting has led to the collapse of many motions raised by the legislators, which have already commanded majority support from their colleagues[11].   

Current Problems on the Executive-Led System[edit]

The constitutional design of an executive-led system intends to give administrative advantages and high level of autonomy to the Executive branch on policy implementation. There is also no legal restriction except public pressure to ensure proper civic engagement in policy making[12]. Theoretically, It permits the government to dominate the process without disturbance. Nonetheless, none of the HKSAR governments has enjoyed a dominant position in policy-making[7]. The underlying causes can be divided into 2 aspects: The dissonant relationship with (1) the Legislative Council and (2) the Civil Society.

Dissonant Relationship with Legislative Council[edit]

Introduction of Direct Election Undermined Government’s Control on LegCo[edit]

The Executive-Legislative relationship has been worsened after 1997. Before the handover, the Colonial Governor had the power to appoint members into the Legislature so that the Governor could always have a guaranteed majority. This was no longer the case towards the end of colonial rule after the introduction of direct elections in 1991[7]. Things have changed further after the handover, since the Chief Executive no longer has the rights to appoint members into the LegCo. Taking all these into account, CE’s control on the LegCo is weakened.

Given that members of the geographical constituency are directly elected by the citizens, they want more say in policy-making from the executive branch, so that they can exert higher influence on policies in order to satisfy voters’ demands and secure their votes[8]. Pan-democrats, which are more popular in legislative elections, often label CE as Beijing's appointee, and refuse to work with him/her in strengthening government’s legitimacy[2]. Therefore, they are more likely to challenge the proposal made by the government, leading to increased conflicts between the Legislative and Executive branch[13][14]. These could be exemplified by the emergence of filibustering in LegCo after the handover. (For details, see Filibuster(Hong Kong))

Instead of recognizing LegCo as an ally in policy-making, CE occasionally views the former as an obstacle to governance[7]. This has undermined the mutual trust between the Executive and Legislative branch[15]. For example, the third CE, Leung Chun-ying, approved the building plan of the third runway of Hong Kong Airport through the Executive Council without seeking permission from the LegCo. This incident showed that Leung attempted to bypass the LegCo in order to quickly implement his plan. (For details, see Hong Kong International Airport Master Plan 2030).

LegCo's Fragile Governing Alliance[edit]

Moreover, the restriction on CE’s political affiliation is prescribed by the CE election ordinance. In other words, CE could not belong to any of the political parties. Thus, it is institutionally impossible for CE to achieve support in the legislature through political parties[7]. To mobilize support, there has been a tradition for CE to appoint key political leaders from pro-Beijing parties to the executive council. However, this arrangement does not guarantee that the government will receive unreservedly support from the allies in the legislature. For example, Tung Chee Wah, the first CE, incorporated Jasper Tsang from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and James Tien from the Liberal Party into the executive council in 2002. However, this coalition broke down when Tien decided to resign in 2003 to oppose the proposed enactment of Basic Law Article 23. His defect contributed to the crumbled governance of Tung and his early resignation in 2005.  The stability of governing coalition thus depends on the politics of the day, and whether there is upcoming election.[7]

LegCo’s Increased Fragmentation[edit]

Cox and McCubbins pointed out that an executive-led system may be incompatible with multiparty systems[16]. In view of the increasing parties’ fragmentation within the legislature, it is much more difficult for the Hong Kong government to build cross-party support[7]. One example is that the decline of Liberal Party has led to the creation of other business-oriented parties, such as the Business and Professionals Alliance. Thus, It is suggested that there has been a "fragmentation of agents of business interests"[17]. Division within the pan-democrats has been more severe. New parties like the People Power have gained seats in the legislature. The increased number of political parties pose greater uncertainty to the government in soliciting widespread support in the Legislature.

Dissonant Relationship with the Civil society[edit]

Apart from the LegCo, government’s implementation of policy can also be obstructed by the civil society. There are 2 possible reasons that explain their worsening relationship, namely (1) The thriving of Civil Society, and (2) Government’s Co-Optation Model Has Failed to Engage the Voice of Civil Society.

The Thriving of Civil Society[edit]

The year 2003 has marked the watershed in Hong Kong’s history and it symbolized the rise of civil society. As the society becomes more diversified, the government and the citizens may hold different values and interests. Conflicts between the 2 parties could usually be seen[18]. On the topic of political reform, civil society has been demanding for universal suffrage in both CE and Legislative Council election since the handover. Restricted by the central government’s 831 decision, the HKSAR government put forth a conservative reform proposal in 2014. Civil society was disappointed by this arrangement, and they labelled the proposal as undemocratic, eventually leading to the outbreak of Umbrella Movement[19]. It should be noted that their discrepancy does not merely confine to this issue, but also on city’s urban planning and labour policies etc. As time goes by, Hong Kong’s civil society has achieved a clearer sense of identity, and gained higher confidence in executing its role and influencing the society[20]. The thriving of civil society thus exerts greater pressure on government’s operation.

Government’s Co-Optation Model Has Failed to Engage the Voice of Civil Society[edit]

Moreover, the government is seen to rely on an obsolete policy-making model that absorb mostly voices of professional and business elites, but this traditional co-optation model is insufficient to reflect the views of citizens[2]. This could be illustrated by the Central Star Ferry Pier saga in 2006. Despite the fact that the government had formally consulted the Antiquities Advisory Board, the district board and the relevant Legco panel, a series of protests against the demolition still took place. They were said to inflict adverse impact on government’s image[21]. Although the government has revamped the mechanism of Antiquities Advisory Board, bringing in further changes to heritage assessment criteria, controversies regarding heritage protection have become more pronounced[22]. These days, Hong Kong's society has become more differentiated and politicized, government’s failure in absorbing the voices of civic groups could result in hurdles in policy-making[23]

In light of the new political environment, it is suggested Hong Kong’s government has weakened from an executive-led one to an "executive-driven" system[15]. Considering the increasing conflicts and confrontations with the civil society, government’s dominant position in policy-making has been reduced.

Possible Reform[edit]

Witnessing the legitimacy crisis brought by the executive-led system after the handover, several political scientist have identified few solutions to solve the problem. Their suggestions could be divided into three types:

(1) Alliance Option - Incorporating political parties into the legislature[24]

(2) Presidential Option - Relaxing the current CE election ordinance[3]

(3) Parliamentary Option - Reforming the entire system with the introduction of parliamentary-style of governance[3]

Alliance Option[edit]

This reform proposal was first put forth by Anthony B.L. Cheung in 2002, who suggested that the forming of "governing alliance” could bring about greater cohesion on executive-legislative unity[25]. In other words, CE would have to form alliances with selected political parties in order to generate sufficient support in the LegCo. This proposal was welcomed by a few political leaders and experts in Hong Kong. Chan Kin Man, Associate Professor of Sociology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, added that party participation in governance is the key to success of an executive-led system[26]. Regina Yip, chairperson of the New People's Party, agreed that party support is crucial to CE, and she also made recommendation similar to that of Cheung[27].

Presidential Option[edit]

Some hinted that by allowing the CE to have party affiliation, it could help resolve some of the conflicts between the executive and legislative branch[28].  They argued that by waiving the restriction on CE’s party background, it could at least guarantee a certain level of party support in the LegCo[28].  This reform proposal is politically realistic since it involves minimal or even no amendment on Basic Law. Local politicians, including members coming from pro-establishment and pro-democracy parties, have voiced out their support on this proposal. James Tien, former chairman of the Liberal Party, openly suggested that CE should possess a party background[29]. Ms. Andrey EU, former chairman of the Civic Party also held similar stance with Tien[30].

Parliamentary Option[edit]

Cox and McCubbins have summarized the two indicators that could be used to measure state capabilities in setting priorities and implementing given decisions, namely (1) Decisiveness and (2) Resoluteness. Decisiveness was defined as “the ability of a state to enact and implement policy change”, whereas Resoluteness was described as “the ability of a state to commit to maintaining a given policy[16]. They stressed that the parliamentary system prevails over the presidential system in both indicators[16]. The potential benefit brought by the parliamentary system has drawn attention from politicians and scholars in Hong Kong.

Advocates of this reform option suggested that by engaging LegCo in the governing process, it could resolve the tension between the executive and legislative branch. Extending their argument, they believed that the CE could form a cabinet that is made up of legislators[3]. Some even proposed a more aggressive approach - CE should only be in charge of constitutional and external affairs, whereas Chief Secretary with majority support in the legislature is the one that conducts daily government operations[31].  


Though these suggestions look feasible in some sense, some raise doubts on them.

Regarding the Alliance Option, this approach was described as “Unstable at best[3]. Such argument could be best supported by the Basic Law Article 23 controversy in 2003. As stated above, former CE Tung Chee Hwa appointed Liberal Party’s member James Tien into the executive council in an attempt to foster a governing alliance in the legislature. However, his effort proved to be futile as James Tien resigned from the executive council and would have his party members vote for a postponement just before the proposal of Basic Law Article 23 was put to vote in the LegCo. In the end, the legislation of Article 23 was withdrawn. Other than possible defection from the allies, it is also suggested that conflicting party preferences within the alliance could also pose risk to governance[3]. They may have shared similar stances on political and constitutional reform, but not economic issues. In Hong Kong's context, while the DAB supported the imposition of minimum wage, the Liberal Party actually opposed it[3]. Summing up, the alliance option could be unstable in nature.

Concerning Presidential Option, despite the fact that such reform proposal does not involve any changes in the entire style of governance, it could lead to "perils of presidentialism"[3], and may hinder the effectiveness of governance. It is stated that the "winner-take-all" nature prescribed in this reform could have led to polarized conflicts, bringing in the permanent gridlock between the head of the government and the legislature[3]. This has led to political paralysis in East Asian Countries where presidentialism is practised[32]. In worst case scenario, it may generate a series of political crisis.

While some believe that the Parliamentary Option could be the best option among the three[3], others argue that this reform proposal could hardly be plausible. Due to the obsession with the executive-led system, the central government is actually working hard on fending off the influence of LegCo in policy-making process[7]. In the foreseeable future, we could expect that the chance of implementing such reform proposal would be minimal.


This article "Hong Kong's Executive-Led System" is from Wikipedia. The list of its authors can be seen in its historical and/or the page Edithistory:Hong Kong's Executive-Led System. Articles copied from Draft Namespace on Wikipedia could be seen on the Draft Namespace of Wikipedia and not main one.

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