September 15, 2015 / 4:53 AM / 2 years ago

Hong Kong leader plays down comments by top Beijing official

Leung Chun-ying meets journalists in Hong Kong, China in this June 18, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying said on Tuesday some people had misunderstood controversial comments by Beijing’s top representative in the Chinese-ruled city that the chief executive was above the law.

Zhang Xiaoming, the head of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, said at the weekend Leung enjoys a special legal position that puts him above the legislature and judiciary in the former British colony.

His remarks drew criticism from democrats who accused Beijing of changing the status of the chief executive. Hong Kong lawyers said the comments had sparked fears about the city’s rule of law and were “regrettable”.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that gives it separate laws and an independent judiciary but reserves ultimate authority for Beijing.

Leung played down Zhang’s comments and criticized the “misleading” reactions to the speech.

“I reaffirm that Hong Kong’s judiciary is independent. It is our rule of law, the tradition of rule of law and is a key element in the operation of the rule of law,” Leung told reporters.

Zhang’s comments came two weeks ahead of the first anniversary of last year’s pro-democracy Occupy movement in Hong Kong that kicked off more than two months of street protests that paralyzed parts of the city.

Questions about the extent of mainland control have been hotly debated, particularly since last year’s protests aimed at securing open nominations for the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017. China says it will allow a free vote, but only from pre-screened candidates.

Fears that Beijing is tightening its control were heightened in June last year when the central government published an unprecedented cabinet-level white paper that bluntly reminded Hong Kong that China holds supreme authority over it.

Reporting By Donny Kwok; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Paul Tait

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