Freedom in the World
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Hong Kong *
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Hong Kong's civil liberties rating improved from 3 to 2 due to an increase in civic activism.
In April 2004, the Chinese government intervened directly in the affairs of Hong Kong (formally, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, or SAR) for the second time since the territory's 1997 handover from the United Kingdom, issuing a ruling on Hong Kong's basic law that blocked the possibility of long-promised electoral reform. In response, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets in a mass civic action in July. On the political rights side, democratic parties did not perform as well as expected in legislative elections in September, and allegations of voter intimidation surfaced.
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, 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. The remaining 30 seats are chosen by "functional constituencies" - essentially interest groups that tend to support Beijing. 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retaliated by disbanding the partially elected Legco and installing, for 10 months, a provisional legislature that repealed or tightened several of the territory's civil liberties laws.
As chief executive since the handover, Tung Chee-hwa has seen his popularity wane as Hong Kong's economy has suffered in the wake of the 1997-1998 regional financial crisis and as Beijing has become increasingly heavy-handed in its rule over the Hong Kong SAR. A Beijing-organized committee chose him for the top job in 1996 after Chinese leaders indicated that he was their preferred choice.
The vast majority of Hong Kong voters favor direct elections for the chief executive and for all of Legco's seats, and the basic law allows direct elections for the chief executive in 2007 and for the entire Legco in 2008. However, any changes would have to be approved by China's rubber-stamp National People's Congress (NPC), Hong Kong's chief executive, and the 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, promised public consultations in 2004 or 2005 on changes to the electoral system.
In April 2004, however, the standing committee of the National People's Congress (China's legislature) issued a ruling preserving the status quo, in contravention of Tung's promise; it maintained that political reform in Hong Kong could not occur without the committee's prior approval. New York - based Human Rights Watch called the development a "serious setback for electoral reform" and claimed that "by adding additional procedural requirements, [Beijing] changed the rules of the game, essentially amending the Basic Law." The organization also warned that "if Beijing does not recognize reasonable limits to its powers under Article 158, [which allows the NPC to issue interpretations of the Basic Law] ... the provision could become a vehicle for infringing civil and political rights safeguards in Hong Kong."
In July 2004, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a peaceful march and a rally to protest the ruling and to demand the right to elect directly the chief executive. The event was doubly significant because it also commemorated the one-year anniversary of the march protesting the government's attempt to introduce an anti-subversion bill that would have fallen short of international human rights standards (the bill was subsequently shelved and has not yet been reintroduced).
With popular support for increased political freedom running so high, a democratic victory in the September 2004 Legco elections - the first in which 30 of the 60 seats were directly elected - was expected. However, pro-Beijing parties retained control of the legislature, with pro-democracy parties winning a total of only 25 of the 60 seats in the Legco (18 of the 30 directly elected seats, and just 7 of the 30 seats chosen by functional constituencies). The elections were marred by voter intimidation, resulting in a vote that was decidedly not free. A report released by Human Rights Watch three days before the election detailed "how politicians, journalists and voters have faced political intimidation and criminal threats, much of it apparently emanating from Beijing with the aim of skewing election results to favor pro-Beijing candidates." In March, for example, two leading radio commentators resigned after receiving phone calls ordering them to stop broadcasting until after the elections. In May, voters phoned in to radio programs reporting that they faced pressure to vote for pro-Beijing candidates.
Hong Kong residents enjoy most basic rights, but voters cannot change their government through elections. 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. The number of directly elected seats increased to 30 in the September 2004 Legco elections.
The territory's basic law restricts Legco's law-making powers, prohibiting legislators from introducing bills affecting Hong Kong's public spending, governmental operations, or political structure. Legco members can introduce bills concerning governmental policy, but only with the chief executive's prior approval. In certain cases, the government has used a very broad definition of "governmental 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 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 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.
Hong Kong's press continues to be outspoken on many issues. There are 15 privately owned daily newspapers (though 4 of these are supported and guided editorially by Beijing), hundreds of magazines, 4 commercial television stations, and 2 commercial radio stations, and all operate virtually free from government control. No restrictions impede the international media. Although political debate is vigorous and the media represent multiple points of view, many media outlets practice some self-censorship when reporting on Chinese politics, powerful local business interests, and the issues of Tibetan and Taiwanese independence. Internet access and use is unrestricted.
Hong Kong fully respects religious freedom. Religious groups are specifically excluded from the Societies Ordinance, which requires NGOs to register with the government. Beijing does not interfere in religious matters in Hong Kong. University professors can write and lecture freely, and political debate on campuses is lively. Research is independent of the government.
The basic law guarantees freedom of assembly and association, and the government has never invoked its power to bar protests on national security grounds. The police merely must be notified in advance about demonstrations and marches. The July 2004 march protesting Beijing's interpretation of the basic law was the second major public assembly to draw international attention within the space of one year. A wide range of NGOs, including human rights groups, operate in Hong Kong without restrictions.
Hong Kong's trade unions are independent, and union membership is not restricted to a single trade, industry, or occupation. However, the law restricts some basic labor rights and does not protect others. The provisional legislature in 1997 removed both the legal basis for collective bargaining and legal protections against summary dismissal for union activity. The Employment Ordinance provides punishments for anti-union discrimination. Though strikes are legal in the territory, many workers have to sign employment contracts stating that job walkouts could be grounds for summary dismissal.
Hong Kong's common law judiciary is independent, and the judicial process is fair. Trials are by jury and are made public. Courts address issues that fall within the limits of the SAR's autonomy and can interpret sections of the basic law that deal with the relationship between Beijing and the SAR. However, they must obtain an interpretation from the NPC's Standing Committee before making a final judgment. This effective limit of the power of final adjudication of Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal "could be used to limit the independence of the judiciary or could degrade the courts' authority," according to the 2003 human rights report released by the U.S. State Department in February 2004.
Hong Kong's police force, which remains firmly under the control of civilian authorities, is well supervised and not known to be corrupt. The police are forbidden by law to employ torture and other forms of abuse. Arbitrary arrest and detention are also illegal; suspects must be charged within 48 hours of their arrest.
The basic law guarantees equality of all residents before the law. An Equal Opportunity Commission was established in 1996 to eradicate discrimination and promote equality of opportunity. Ethnic minorities are well represented in the civil service and many professions. Nevertheless, some minorities allege discrimination in renting apartments, landing private sector jobs, receiving treatment in public hospitals, and competing for public school and university slots. In mid-2004, the government issued a consultation paper on proposed legislation that would make various forms of racial discrimination and harassment illegal. The public was invited to comment on the proposal until the end of December 2004.
The government generally does not impose limits on personal autonomy and privacy. The Telecommunications Ordinance and the Post Office Ordinance permit the interception of communications, however. Wiretapping requires high-level authorization, but not a warrant. Residents enjoy freedom of movement within Hong Kong and abroad.
Women in Hong Kong enjoy equal access to schooling and are protected under the basic law, but nevertheless face discrimination in employment, salary, welfare, inheritance, and promotion, according to the U.S. State Department report. Violence against women remains a problem, partly because of light sentences for offenders and also because of cultural factors that result in many cases of violence and abuse going unreported. Traffickers bring women into Hong Kong for prostitution and to work as household help and use the territory to transit victims of trafficking.