Freedom in the World
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Using street protests and the ballot box, Hong Kong residents in 2003 put democratic reform squarely on the territory's political agenda. Some 500,000 residents took to the streets in a July protest that forced unpopular Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to shelve controversial internal security legislation. In addition, voters strongly backed pro-democracy candidates in local elections in November. The record turnout and strong support for pro-democracy politicians suggested that many ordinary Hong Kong residents want the government to introduce direct elections for the chief executive and entire legislature once these changes become legally possible beginning in 2007.
Located at the mouth of the Pearl River on the southern Chinese 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 18 seats in the territory's 60-member legislature, known as the Legislative Council (Legco), in 1991 and gradually expanding the number to 30 over 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 as planned in 1997, Beijing retaliated by disbanding the partially elected Legco and installing a provisional legislature for ten months, which repealed or tightened several of the territory's civil liberties laws.
As chief executive since the handover, Tung 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 for the top job by a Beijing-organized committee in 1996 after Chinese leaders indicated that he was their preferred choice.
Capitalizing on Tung's unpopularity, pro-democracy parties picked up several seats in the most recent Legco elections, held in 2000. They won 16 of Legco's 24 directly elected seats and 21 of 60 overall. Final results gave the main opposition 646 Freedom in the World - 2004 Democratic Party 12 seats and the conservative, pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance 11, with smaller parties and independents taking the remaining seats.
The political crisis that engulfed Tung's administration in 2003 began the previous year, when the government first publicized details of proposed internal security laws. Human rights activists, religious figures, and others argued that Hong Kong lacks sufficient democratic checks and balances to ensure that the 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.
Even some members of the business community, which generally supports Tung's conservative administration, warned that the laws could stifle the free flow of information and undermine Hong Kong's competitive advantage as an outpost of the rule of law in China. The government responded by saying that the laws carried sufficient safeguards and that it was simply carrying out its responsibilities under the Basic Law. The Basic Law requires the government to introduce laws that criminalize subversion, secession, treason, sedition, theft of state secrets, and the maintenance of links with foreign political groups that could harm national security.
Thrown on the defensive by the July 1, 2003, protest - the largest on Chinese soil since the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations - Tung shelved the security legislation indefinitely on September 5 after it became clear that key supporters in Legco would not vote for the unpopular bills. Against this backdrop, the Democratic Party portrayed the November 23 local elections as a referendum on democratic reform. Led by lawyer Yeung Sum, the party won nearly 80 percent of the seats it contested, while the Democratic Alliance won only 38 percent of the seats it stood for.
Exit polls showed that 80 percent or more of voters interviewed favor direct elections for the chief executive and for all of Legco's seats. While the Basic Law allows direct elections for Tung's post in 2007 and for the entire Legco in 2008, any changes would have to be approved by China's rubber-stamp National People's Congress (NPC), Hong Kong's chief executive, and Legco. Tung, who was reelected to a second 5-year term in 2002 by an 800-member committee of lawmakers, religious figures, and interest-group representatives, has promised public consultations in 2004 or 2005 on changes to the electoral system.
The more immediate political test will be the September 2004 Legco elections, where half of the body's 60 seats will be directly elected. Tung relies on the Democratic Alliance and pro-business Liberal Party to pass legislation, but pro-democracy parties are looking to gain control of Legco for the first time.
Demands for political reform have been fueled in part by Hong Kong's economic gloom. The economy staggered through its third technical recession in six years in the first half of 2003 as retail and tourism were battered by the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong before abating in mid-year.
Unemployment hit a record high of 8.7 percent in the May-July reporting period before falling to 8.3 percent later in the year. While the government was expecting the economy to grow by around 2 percent for the full year, the outlook continued to be clouded by persistent deflation, high budget deficits, and the wealth-erasing effects of a 60 percent fall in residential and commercial property prices since 1997. Hong Kong also faces the longer-term chal- Related Territories Reports 647 lenge of preserving its status as an international trade, shipping, and finance center, and its niche as a gateway for trade and investment with China, in the face of competition from Shanghai and other mainland cities.
Hong Kong residents enjoy most basic rights, but the legal footing for many of these rights is less secure than before the handover and voters cannot change their government through elections.
Criticism of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's performance and concern over his proposed security laws has focused attention on the limited democratic checks and balances in Hong Kong. Most notably, the chief executive wields strong executive powers and is appointed rather than elected. The 800-member committee that reelected Tung in 2002 consisted of the 60 members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco); Hong Kong's 36 delegates to China's NPC; 40 representatives of religious groups; 41 members of an official Chinese consultative body; and 623 interest group representatives 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 the 60 seats in the 2000 Legco elections. Six other seats were chosen by the same 800 people who reelected Tung, leaving only 24 directly elected seats.
Moreover, the Basic Law restricts Legco's law-making powers. It prohibits legislators from introducing bills affecting Hong Kong's public spending, government operations, or political structure. Legco members can introduce bills concerning government policy, but only with the chief executive's prior approval. The government in certain cases has used a very broad definition of "government policy" in order to exercise its right to block Legco bills. In addition, 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.
Beyond these formal limits on elections and legislative power, many ordinary Hong Kong residents 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 these concerns, even the government's staunchest critics generally acknowledge that Hong Kong 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. While the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights continues to be formally incorporated into Hong Kong's 1991 Bill of Rights, the provisional legislature that served for 10 months after the handover watered down certain provisions of the Bill of Rights and rolled back certain laws protecting worker's 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, the press continues to be outspoken on many issues. Hong Kong's hundreds of newspapers and magazines routinely carry articles critical of the Hong Kong and Beijing governments, statements by Chinese dissidents and supporters of Taiwanese independence, and reports of official corruption on the mainland. Many 648 Freedom in the World - 2004 media outlets, however, practice some self-censorship when reporting on Chinese politics, powerful local business interests, and the issues of Tibetan and Taiwanese 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 hostile to China or to local tycoons.
Religious freedom is respected in Hong Kong, with Buddhism and Taoism having the most adherents. Practitioners of the Falun Gong and other spiritual groups can practice without interference. Meanwhile, university professors can write and lecture freely, and political debate on campuses is lively and robust.
Hong Kong NGOs continue to be vigorous, and none have been denied registration under the post-1997 national security provisions. Similarly, thousands of protests have been staged since the handover, and the government has never invoked its power to bar protests on national security grounds. Some protest organizers, however, say that the "designated areas" to which some protests are confined are often locations where the rallies receive little public attention. Some organizers also complain about the need to obtain prior approval for assemblies and demonstrations. Three political activists were sentenced to three months' probation in 2002 for organizing an unauthorized rally. The case marked the first time since the handover that protesters were sanctioned for holding a demonstration without obtaining police permission in advance.
Hong Kong's trade unions are independent, but the law restricts some basic labor rights and does not protect others. Most importantly, the provisional legislature in 1997 removed both the legal basis for collective bargaining and legal protections against summary dismissal for union activity. More than 22 percent of Hong Kong workers who receive regular wages or salaries are unionized. While strikes are legal in the territory, many workers have to sign employment contracts stating that job walkouts are a basis for summary dismissal.
Hong Kong's common law judiciary is independent. Many human rights activists and others argue, however, that the Tung administration has undermined the territory's rule of law. They cite what they see as the government's preferential treatment of Richard Li and other well-connected business leaders as well as its intervention in a 1999 immigration case. In that case, the government asked China's NPC to interpret the Basic Law's provisions on immigration to Hong Kong from the mainland. The NPC's ensuing interpretation effectively overturned an earlier ruling by Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal. Critics alleged 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 that touch on Beijing's responsibilities to the territory or concern the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong.
Hong Kong's police force continues to be dogged by complaints from residents of being assaulted by officers. While few of these complaints are substantiated, the UN Human Rights Committee and local rights groups have called for a more independent police oversight body to replace the current, executive-appointed body.
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 Related Territories Reports 649 slots. The press regularly carries accounts of apparent discrimination against minorities and also against newly arrived mainland Chinese.
Women in Hong Kong have equal access to schooling and are entering medicine and other professions in increasingly greater numbers. In the private sector, however, they continue to face discrimination in landing jobs and getting fair salaries and promotions. Women also make up an outsized share of low-level workers, and relatively few women are judges, lawmakers, or senior civil servants.
The government funds programs to curb domestic violence and prosecutes violators, but violence against women in the home persists, and punishments generally are lenient. Meanwhile, credible reports suggest that some Hong Kong residents illegally force their foreign household help to accept less than the minimum wage and provide them with poor living conditions. Traffickers bring women into Hong Kong for prostitution and to work as household help and use the territory to transit trafficking victims.