Hong Kong * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Hong Kong *

Hong Kong *

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Rising unemployment, depressed property and stock prices, and a sluggish economy cast gloom over Hong Kong in 2001. Many in this Chinese territory said that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, a shipping magnate, seemed to be out of touch with the concerns of ordinary residents, although at year's end he was almost certain to win a second five-year term in March 2002. Because he continues to enjoy Beijing's public support, Tung will probably be the sole candidate when an 800-member committee that chooses Hong Kong's top official meets to vote.

Located at the mouth of the Pearl River on the south China coast, Hong Kong consists of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, both ceded in perpetuity to Britain by China in the mid-1800s, and the mainland New Territories, which Britain "leased" for 99 years in 1898. Under the 1984 Joint Declaration, Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China in 1997. Beijing pledged to maintain the capitalist enclave's political, legal, and economic autonomy for 50 years. London and Beijing agreed in 1990 that Britain would hold the territory's first-ever direct elections, for 18 Legislative Council (Legco) seats, in 1991; followed by direct elections for 20 seats in 1995, 24 in 1999, and 30 in 2003. China codified these plans into a post-1997 constitution for Hong Kong called the Basic Law.

Hong Kong's last colonial governor, Christopher Patten, introduced a raft of reforms for the 1995 Legco elections that gave ordinary residents greater say in choosing the body's 40 indirectly elected seats. China claimed the reforms violated the Basic Law and pledged to dissolve Legco after the handover. Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp won 16 of Legco's 20 directly elected seats in the 1995 vote.

Following the handover on July 1, 1997, China replaced Legco with an appointed provisional legislature. Over the next ten months, that body repealed or tightened several of Hong Kong's civil liberties laws. In the May 1998 elections for a new Legco, pro-democracy candidates again won 16 of the 20 directly elected seats, though only 20 of 60 seats overall.

Since coming to office, Tung, 64, has seen his popularity wane amid continuing fallout from the regional financial crisis that began in 1997. Tung was chosen for the top job in late 1996 by a Beijing-organized committee. Hong Kong's economy emerged from two years of recession in early 2000, but many middle-class residents continue to be concerned with job security and falling housing prices.

The pro-democracy camp, however, largely failed to capitalize on the public's mood at the September 10, 2000, Legco elections. Under a relatively low 43.6 percent turnout, pro-democracy candidates won only 16 of Legco's now 24 directly elected seats and 21 of 60 overall. Among pro-democracy parties, the main opposition Democratic Party, led by lawyer Martin Lee, won 9 directly elected seats and 12 overall. The conservative Democratic Alliance, meanwhile, won 11 seats, up from 10 in 1998. A prodemocracy candidate won a December 2000 by-election.

For his part, Tung would probably face a tough time getting reelected in a direct vote. Polls in late 2001 showed that more than half of respondents would be unlikely to vote for him if they were given the chance. Many of the doubts regarding Tung reflected concerns about jobs and other bread-and-butter issues. Unemployment rose to 5.8 percent in the September-November period, up from 5.5 percent between August and October, the government's three-month moving averages showed. These figures are well above the 2 percent that was the norm before the regional financial crisis began in 1997.

Dragged down by slowing exports, Hong Kong's economy was expected to post flat or slightly negative growth for 2001 after growing by 10.5 percent in 2000. Thanks to re-exports of goods from mainland China, the ratio of Hong Kong's total exports of goods and services to gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.5 in 2000. This high trade dependence means that Hong Kong's hopes for an economic recovery in 2002 hinge in part on solid growth in the United States and Europe.

Making matters worse, depressed property prices have dampened spending by Hong Kong consumers, many of whom see housing prices as the main gauge of their financial health. Property prices have plummeted by around 50 percent from their 1997 peaks. At the same time, they are still too high for the majority of Hong Kong residents, who cannot afford to buy homes. Property makes up about half of Hong Kong's GDP.

In addition to economic concerns, Tung has been dogged by accusations that his administration is too cozy with business leaders. These concerns were heightened in January after Anson Chan, Hong Kong's top civil servant, announced her retirement. The respected Chan was a forceful advocate of civil liberties and transparency in business. Her departure led to speculation in the press that government decisions increasingly will be made on the basis of personal ties rather than merit. Tung soothed some of these fears by naming as Chan's successor Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's well-regarded financial secretary.

Tung has also been criticized for not taking steps towards holding a direct election for the chief executive and increasing the number of directly elected Legco seats. Under the Basic Law, both moves are possible after 2007.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Hong Kong residents enjoy most basic rights, but they cannot change their government through elections. Under the Basic Law, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was appointed by a 400-member selection committee, itself appointed by Beijing. The 800-member committee that will choose the next chief executive in March 2002 consists of Legco's 60 members; Hong Kong's 36 delegates to China's National People's Congress (NPC); 40 representatives from religious groups; and 664 people chosen in July 2000 by a narrow electorate of just 180,000 voters.

Those 180,000 voters, representing business, the professions, and labor, also chose the 30 "functional constituency" seats in the 2000 Legco elections. In addition, 6 Legco seats were chosen in 2000 by an even smaller group--the same 800 people who will elect the chief executive in 2002. Democracy advocates say it is undemocratic for Legco to have 36 seats chosen by such a small number of people and only 24 directly elected members.

The Basic Law allows Hong Kong to hold direct elections for all Legco seats and the chief executive after 2007. Any changes, however, would have to be approved by China's rubber-stamp NPC, Hong Kong's chief executive, and Legco. That body would have to approve the changes by a two-thirds majority at a time when only half of its members would be directly elected.

The Basic Law also restricts Legco's law-making powers. It prohibits legislators from introducing bills affecting public spending, Hong Kong's political structure, or governmental operations. Legco members can introduce bills concerning governmental policy, but only with the chief executive's prior approval. The Basic Law also requires, for passage of individual member's bills, separate majorities among the members elected from the geographical and functional constituencies. Together, Legco's makeup and limited powers hamper the body's ability to act as a check on the chief executive's authority.

Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp denounced legislation passed in July that included a clause clarifying that China could sack the territory's chief executive. The Basic Law does not explicitly grant Beijing this power without Hong Kong's courts or Legco beginning the move.

Outside observers such as the U.S. State Department say that Hong Kong's judiciary is independent. Local human rights activists generally agree, but many argue that the Tung administration has undermined the territory's rule of law with a series of controversial legal moves and its allegedly preferential treatment of well-connected business leaders. Critics point in particular to the government's intervention in 1999 in an immigration case that resulted in China's NPC overturning a ruling by Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal. The government defended its appeal to the NPC on the grounds that the Court's ruling would have allowed Hong Kong to be swamped by mainlanders. Critics, however, said that the move raised doubts over whether any Court of Final Appeal decision is truly final.

The Basic Law requires Hong Kong courts, though not the government, to seek from the NPC an interpretation of the Basic Law on issues that are Beijing's responsibility or that concern the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong. The court must follow the NPC's interpretation. The controversy arose when the administration asked the NPC to interpret the Basic Law's provisions on the so-called right of abode after the Court of Final Appeal issued a ruling that would have made it easier for mainlandborn Chinese and their children to gain Hong Kong residency. The NPC's strict interpretation effectively overturned the Court of Final Appeal's liberal ruling.

Activists also criticized Tung's administration in 1998 for not bringing legal charges in two sensitive cases. In separate decisions, authorities declined to prosecute the Chinarun Xinhua news agency, for allegedly missing a deadline to respond to a freedom-ofinformation request, and Sally Aw, the politically connected owner of the Hong Kong Standard, accused of fraud.

Moreover, many ordinary Hong Kong residents and outside observers have criticized what they see as collusion between the administration and a small number of powerful businessmen who control an outsize share of the economy. They point, for example, to the government's decision in 2000 to award a contract to develop the Cyberport industrial park to Richard Li, a son of Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's wealthiest businessman, without the routine bidding process.

Amid these concerns over the resiliency of the rule of law, pro-democracy groups and the media raised an outcry in early 2001 after some pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong called on the government to enact a law against subversion. Rebuffing the pro- Beijing camp, the Tung administration continued to delay introducing what it says will be comprehensive legislation covering subversion, as well as treason, secession, and sedition. The Basic Law requires Hong Kong to have laws on all four areas.

Despite their concerns, even the government's staunchest critics generally acknowledge that ordinary residents enjoy the same basic rights they had enjoyed before the handover. Yet many of these rights are now on less solid legal footings. The provisional legislature that served immediately after the handover watered down Hong Kong's 1991 bill of rights and rolled back some laws on workers' rights. It also amended laws to give authorities the power to cite national security in denying registration to nongovernmental groups (NGOs), de-registering existing groups, or barring public protests.

In practice, Hong Kong NGOs continue to be vibrant and report few problems with the registration process. Thousands of protests, meanwhile, have been staged since the handover, and none have been barred on national security grounds. Some protest organizers, however, say that officials often confine demonstrators to "designated areas" where the rallies receive little public attention.

Hong Kong's dozens of newspapers and magazines are generally lively but practice some self-censorship when reporting on Chinese politics, powerful local business interests, and calls for Taiwanese or Tibetan independence. The press faces no direct pressure, but some publishers and editors believe that advertising revenues or their business interests in China could suffer if they appear to be too hostile to China or powerful local interests, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Hong Kong's human rights record in 2000. President Jiang Zemin and other Chinese officials, moreover, have criticized and tried to jawbone Hong Kong's press. The state-run Radio Television Hong Kong takes an independent editorial line. It shares the broadcast field with several private television and radio stations. While academic freedom is respected, a Hong Kong University professor charged in 2000 that a Tung aide tried to pressure the university into stopping polls that measured Tung's approval ratings.

Raising concerns about protection of privacy, a September 1999 press report said that the government eavesdropped each day on private telephone conversations of more than 100 Hong Kong residents. The law allows the government to use wiretaps and intercept private mail, but only with high-level approval. In practice, the chief executive's office approves all wiretaps, but the government refuses to say how often Chief Executive Tung actually uses this power. It is not clear whether or how often the colonial government used wiretaps.

Women have equal access to schooling and are entering medicine and other professions in increasingly greater numbers. They continue, however, to face private sector discrimination in employment, salaries, and promotions, the 2001 U.S. State Department report said. Women are also underrepresented in Legco, the judiciary, and senior civil service posts. The government funds programs to curb domestic violence and prosecutes violators, but violence against women remains a problem and sentences generally are lenient, according to the State Department report. The report also said that local, foreign, and mainland Chinese prostitutes reportedly sometimes work for criminal gangs under harsh conditions in exchange for protection or other help. There are also credible reports of employers forcing their foreign household help to accept less than the minimum wage and poor living conditions, the report added.