Hong Kong * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Hong Kong *

Hong Kong *

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Hong Kong received a downward trend arrow because the government introduced plans for new national security laws that could be used to restrict basic rights.


The government's decision in 2002 to introduce laws that would impose heavy penalties for subversion and other anti-state crimes raised fears that the new powers could be used to stifle free expression and ban groups that China opposes. The move came amid continued concern by human rights activists and others that the checks and balances that underpin liberties in this freewheeling former British colony are being steadily eroded. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the territory's top official, added to these concerns during the year by reducing the policy-making powers of the respected, nonpartisan civil service. The change came as Hong Kong continued to grapple with high unemployment and a sluggish economy.

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.

Hong Kong's transition to Chinese rule began in 1984, when Britain agreed to return the territory to China in 1997 in return for Beijing's pledge to maintain the capitalist enclave's legal, political, and economic autonomy for 50 years.

London and Beijing later drafted a mini-constitution for Hong Kong, called the basic law, that laid the blueprint for introducing direct elections for some Legislative Council (Legco) seats in 1991 and gradually expanding the number of directly elected seats over the next 12 years. Hong Kong's last colonial governor, Christopher Patten, infuriated Beijing with his attempt to deepen democracy by giving ordinary residents greater say in choosing Legco's indirectly elected seats. After China took control of Hong Kong in 1997, it retaliated by installing a provisional legislature for ten months that repealed or tightened several of the territory's civil liberties laws.

As chief executive since the handover, Tung, 65, has seen his popularity wane as Hong Kong struggles to regain its economic vigor in the wake of the regional financial crisis that began in 1997. He was chosen by a Beijing-organized committee for the top job in 1996 after Chinese leaders indicated that he was their preferred choice.

Pro-democracy candidates, however, largely failed to capitalize on Tung's unpopularity at the September 2000 Legco elections. They won only 16 of Legco's 24 directly elected seats and 21 of 60 overall, led by lawyer Martin Lee's opposition Democratic Party, which took 12 seats.

The conservative Democratic Alliance won 11 seats. Tung's move in September 2002 to formally begin enacting laws on subversion, treason, sedition, and secession was widely criticized by students, academics, religious figures, and human rights activists. They argued that Hong Kong lacks democratic checks and balances to ensure that the new laws are not abused. Many warned that the laws could be used to undermine press and academic freedoms, criminalize public advocacy of independence for Tibet or Taiwan, or target groups that Beijing opposes, such as the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

The government noted that the legislation is required by the basic law and targets only actual commission or incitement to commit violence. Legco is expected to pass the laws in 2003.

The security laws are being drafted by a new cabinet of ministers that Tung created in 2002 to shape public policy. The government said that reducing civil servants' policy-making powers would insulate them from political pressure. Critics said the change would increase Tung's power.

Tung, who is publicly supported by Beijing, was reelected to a second 5-year term in February by an 800-strong committee of legislators, religious figures, and interest-group representatives. No one challenged Tung for the top spot even though the economy is stagnant and one opinion poll put his support at only 16 percent.

The economy remains weak despite eking out growth of half a percent in the second quarter to snap a nine-month recession. High unemployment and depressed asset prices have made consumers reluctant to spend, and their purchases make up 60 percent of Hong Kong's output.

Unemployment rose to a record high of 7.8 percent before easing later in the year. Property prices, meanwhile, have plummeted to about half their peak in 1997, when the government began easing restrictions on the supply of land for development that had helped to create a speculative property bubble.

In addition to being criticized for weak economic leadership, Tung has been dogged by accusations that his administration is too cozy with business leaders and has taken few steps to make Hong Kong more democratic. Under the basic law, the territory can hold direct elections for the chief executive and all Legco seats after 2007.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Hong Kong residents enjoy most basic rights, but they cannot change their government through elections. The 800-member committee that reelected Tung in 2002 consists of Legco's 60 members; Hong Kong's 36 delegates to China's National People's Congress (NPC); 40 representatives of religious groups; 41 members of an official Chinese consultative body; and 623 people chosen in July 2000 by a narrow electorate of just 180,000 voters.

Those 180,000 voters, representing labor, business, and the professions, also chose 30 of 60 seats in the 2000 Legco elections. Six other Legco seats were chosen by the same 800 people who reelected Tung, leaving only 24 directly elected seats. Democracy advocates say that it is impossible for Hong Kong to have a true system of checks and balances when the chief executive and more than half of Legco's members are not directly elected.

Moreover, the basic law 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. And the government has used a very broad definition of "governmental policy" in order to block Legco bills, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001. In order for an individual member's bill to pass, it must have separate majorities among Legco members who are directly elected and those who represent interest groups.

The U.S. State Department and other outside observers 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 by allegedly granting preferential treatment to well-connected business leaders and by its intervention in a 1999 immigration case. That move resulted in China's NPC interpreting the basic law's provisions on immigration from the mainland in a way that effectively overturned an earlier ruling by Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal.

Critics say that the NPC's involvement 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 such as immigration that may concern the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong.

Moreover, many ordinary Hong Kong residents and outside observers have criticized what they see as collusion between the administration and a handful of powerful businessmen. They point, for example, to the government's decision in 2000 to bypass the routine bidding process in awarding a contract to develop the Cyberport industrial park to Richard Li, a son of Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's wealthiest businessman.

Despite their concerns, even the government's staunchest critics generally acknowledge that ordinary residents enjoy the same basic rights that they had enjoyed before the handover. Many of these rights, however, are now on less solid legal footing. The provisional legislature that served for ten months 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 officials the power to cite national security concerns in denying registration to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), de-registering existing groups, and 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. Meanwhile, a court in August convicted and fined 16 Falun Gong practitioners for obstructing pedestrians during a public protest. The judge said religion played no role in his decision.

Hong Kong's hundreds of newspapers and magazines generally are 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 editors and publishers 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. President Jiang Zemin and other Chinese officials, moreover, have criticized and tried to influence Hong Kong's press.

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 must approve all wiretaps, although 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 (business) sector discrimination in landing jobs and getting fair salaries and promotions, the U.S. State Department report said. Women also hold relatively few Legco seats, judgeships, 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 U.S. State Department report. Sexual harassment is also a problem and credible reports also suggest that some residents force their foreign household help to accept less than the minimum wage and poor living conditions, the report added.

Ethnic minorities are well represented in the civil service and many professions. Hong Kong residents of Indian descent and other minorities regularly allege, however, that they face discrimination in renting apartments, landing private sector jobs, getting treated in public hospitals, and competing for public school and university slots, according to the U.S. State Department report. Minorities make up around 5 percent of Hong Kong's population.

Hong Kong's trade unions are independent, but the law restricts some basic labor rights and does not provide for others. Most importantly, the provisional legislature in 1997 repealed laws protecting workers against summary dismissal for union activity and setting out the legal basis for collective bargaining. More than 20 percent of Hong Kong's workers who receive regular wages or salaries are unionized.