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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Hong Kong

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: July 2013

Government and Politics

Since 1997, Hong Kong has been ruled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but has had ‘Special Administrative Region’ status. The territory is formally considered part of the PRC and its head of State is the Chinese premier, currently Xi Jingping. However, under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional document, the territory has been granted the freedom to govern itself in all areas except foreign affairs and defence until 2047. The principle of allowing Hong Kong to retain its existing laws, democratic rights and capitalist outlook without interference from the authoritarian Communist Chinese government is known as ‘One Country, Two Systems.’

The Basic Law also sets out the executive and legislative branches of the government of Hong Kong. The Chief Executive, currently Mr C E Leung, has a prime ministerial role. The Chief Executive is elected by a special election committee and appointed by the PRC Government. He signs official documents, proposes laws and takes executive decisions. In consultation with the Executive Council, he formulates government policy.

The other main role of the Executive Council is to advise the Chief Executive to better perform his duties. The Council consists of 30 members; three Department Secretaries and twelve Bureau Directors under them, and 15 non-officials. Members are appointed by the Chief Executive, and public figures, executive officials and existing members of the Legislative Council. Members of the Executive Council serve as long as the Chief Executive holds office. For more details on government structure, see this organisation chart on this webpage:


The Government, that is, the Chief Executive and Executive Council, are accountable to the Legislative Council. Budgets and other matters involving taxation and public expenditure must be granted approval by this body before they can be implemented by the Government. The main function of the Legislative Council is to debate, pass, and makes amendments to laws. It also critically examines the work of the Government and debates issues in the public interest.
Hong Kong’s political autonomy can seem precarious at times. The freedom that Hong Kong enjoys can be undermined by the PRC government, using its power to veto proposed reforms and other means. For example, Article 45 of the Basic Law states “the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage.” The PRC has intervened to prevent universal suffrage being the method of selection of the Chief Executive in 2007 and again in 2012, the latter time promising that it will be implemented in 2017.

Legal Systems

Hong Kong’s constitutional document, the Basic Law, provides that the territory’s judiciary shall be independent of the PRC Government and that its pre-1997 legal system shall remain in place. Trial by jury exists in Hong Kong. Accused persons must be given a fair trial as soon as is practicable and are presumed innocent until proved otherwise.

Hong Kong law is based on the common law system, which originated in England.  Common law is largely based on precedents and case law, that is, the law that is based on previous judges’ decisions. If a similar case to the one being tried already exists, the judge is bound to make the same decision as the previous case.

The system of courts has remained the same as before 1997, with the exception that recourse to British justice has been removed. Instead, the ultimate court with the power to make final adjudications is the Court of Final Appeal, where the Chief Justice sits. The other courts, the High Court, district courts and magistrates’ courts, have remained substantively unchanged since the handover from Britain to China. Judges are appointed by the Chief Executive, based on the recommendations of other legal professionals.



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