Hong Kong * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Hong Kong *

Hong Kong *

Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores


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Political Rights
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In June 2005, Donald Tsang, a career civil servant popular with the Hong Kong public and with Beijing, was sworn in as the new chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) after the unpopular chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, resigned in March. Along with the change in leadership, the Hong Kong government unveiled plans for reforms that will include more widespread participation in the election of the chief executive and the legislature.

Located at the mouth of the Pearl River on the southern Chinese coast, Hong Kong consists of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula. Ceded in perpetuity to Britain in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking following the Opium Wars, Hong Kong was made a crown colony and later leased by Britain for a period of 99 years, beginning in 1898. Hong Kong's transition to Chinese rule began in 1984 under the Sino-Brit-ish Joint Declaration, when London agreed to return the entire territory to China in 1997. In return, Beijing-under Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's "one country, two systems" formula-pledged to maintain the capitalist enclave's legal, political, and economic autonomy for 50 years.

Under the 1984 agreement, London and Beijing drafted a mini-constitution for Hong Kong, the basic law, which was adopted by the Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) in 1990 to go into effect in 1997. Under the basic law, the blueprint was laid in 1991 for the introduction of direct elections for 18 seats in the territory's 60-member legislature, known as the Legislative Council (Legco), and the gradual expansion of the number of elected seats to 30 over 12 years. "Functional constitu-encies"-interest groups with close ties to Beijing-were to choose the remaining 30 seats. Hong Kong's last colonial governor, Christopher Patten, infuriated Beijing with his attempts 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, 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retaliated by disbanding the partially elected Legco and installing, for 10 months, a provisional legislature that repealed or tightened several of the territory's civil liberties laws.

Tung Chee-hwa was chosen by a Beijing-organized committee to lead Hong Kong after top Chinese leaders indicated that he was their preferred choice. Perceived as being unfamiliar with the political system and indecisive, Tung's popularity waned as Hong Kong's economy suffered in the wake of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis and as Beijing became increasingly involved in the affairs of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). The Hong Kong government's credibility and independence from Beijing was further undermined in 2002, with the release of the proposal for basic law Article 23, an antisubversion law aimed at replacing colonial-era national security laws. The considerable powers the bill gave to the government on national security grounds led to fears that freedom of speech and the press would be compromised, resulting in massive demonstrations in July 2003. Subsequently, the bill was tabled, and authorities have said that it will not be reintroduced. After being reelected in 2002, Tung promised public consultations in 2004 or 2005 on changes to the electoral system.

However, in April 2004, the standing committee of the NPC issued a ruling preserving the status quo, with the chief executive being elected by an 800-member committee of lawmakers, religious figures, and interest group representatives. The NPC maintained that political reform in Hong Kong could not occur without the committee's prior approval. As a result, 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 directly elect the chief executive. The NPC, however, did not back down. Universal suffrage was denied for the chief executive election in 2007 and for the Legco poll in 2008.

In the September 2004 Legco elections, pro-Beijing parties retained control of the legislature, with prodemocracy parties winning only 25 of the 60 seats in Legco (18 of the 30 directly elected seats and just 7 of the 30 seats chosen by functional constituencies). Though it was the first election in which the people directly elected 30 of the 60 seats, the elections were marred by incidents of criminal intimidation and threats against independent politicians, journalists, and voters; much of this activity was thought to be directed by Beijing. In a report issued in September 2004, Human Rights Watch called the multiple instances of election manipulation "some of the most worrying violations of human rights since the 1997 handover."

In March 2005, Tung, citing health concerns, resigned as chief executive. His early retirement-Tung still had two years left in his term of office-led to his replacement by Donald Tsang in June 2005. A career civil servant from the British colonial administration who does not speak Mandarin Chinese, Tsang has cultivated a positive relationship with Beijing, while remaining popular with the Hong Kong population. Tsang's succession was formalized with his election by an 800member, pro-Beijing committee. However, Beijing expressed concerns about Tsang's background as a British civil servant and ruled that Tsang will serve out the remainder of Tung's term, rather than serving a full five-year term as chief executive.

Though widely expected to cultivate pro-Beijing ties to receive support for his reelection in 2007, Tsang has pushed for limited democratic reforms. In October 2005, Tsang's government announced reforms to double the size of the committee that selects the chief executive and expand Legco by 10 seats, 5 of which would be directly elected by the public.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Hong Kong cannot change their government democratically. However, the population does enjoy significant basic rights. The basic law calls for a chief executive and a unicameral Legislative Council (Legco). The chief executive is elected by an 800-member committee, which in 2002 consisted of the 60 members of Hong Kong's 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. A new package of reforms was announced in October 2005 that will double the size of the committee's electorate to 1,600, a change that Chief Secretary Rafael Hui has called a significant step towards the goal of universal suffrage. The reform package will also increase the number of seats in Legco from 60 to 70; 35 of these seats will be directly elected, and the rest will be indirectly elected by functional constituencies.

Although the basic law calls for direct elections for both the chief executive in 2007 and Legco in 2008, a ruling by China's NPC in April 2004 contravened those rights, stating that Hong Kong was "not yet ready" for full democratic government. The decision by Beijing in June to limit the term of Donald Tsang as chief executive to two years instead of the expected five has been seen as contributing to the erosion of political rights.

The territory's basic law restricts Legco's lawmaking 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.

Although there are fair electoral laws, the Legco elections in 2004 were marred by pro-Beijing voter and candidate intimidation and threats, which reduced the credibility of the polls. An unprecedented visit in September 2005 to China by prodemocracy members of Legco may signify Beijing's decision to begin accepting the plurality of political perspectives among Hong Kong's leaders, as well as a decision by Hong Kong democrats to open new lines of communication with Beijing.

Even the government's staunchest critics generally acknowledge that Hong Kong residents enjoy the same basic rights that they 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 is generally regarded as having low rates of corruption, even though it is apparent that business interests have considerable influence on Legco. Hong Kong was ranked 15 out of 159 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. The right to access governmental information is protected under law, and such information is provided to citizens in practice.

Despite cases of intimidation and beatings that led to the resignation of two radio show hosts in 2004, Hong Kong's media are widely regarded as among the freest in East Asia. Hong Kong has 16 privately owned newspapers, although four of them are funded by pro-Beijing interests and follow the Chinese Communist Party's lead on political and social issues. Newspapers, magazines, and radio and television channels remain outspoken, and political debate is vigorous. However, in some cases, self-censorship is practiced. International media organizations operate freely in Hong Kong, and foreign reporters do not need government-issued identification to operate. In 2005, Hong Kong was ranked 34 out of 167 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders. There are no restrictions on internet access.

The basic law provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects these provisions in practice. Religious groups are specifically excluded from the Societies Ordinance, which requires NGOs to register with the government. University professors can write and lecture freely, and political debate on campuses is lively. Research is independent of the government.

The basic law also 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 of demonstrations and marches. Protests on sensitive Chinese government issues are prominent, including the commemoration of the sixteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident in June 2005.

Hong Kong's trade unions are independent, and union membership is not restricted to a single trade, industry, or occupation. However, laws restrict some basic labor rights and do 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 antiunion discrimination. Though strikes are legal in the territory, in reality many workers 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 public and held before a jury. However, the NPC in China reserves the right to make a final interpretation of basic law, effectively limiting the power of Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeals. Other than isolated incidents of threats, there are no reports of political terror, unjustified imprisonment, exile, or torture.

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. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

Citizens are treated equally under the law, though Hong Kong's large population of foreign domestic workers remains vulnerable to discrimination.

The government does not control travel, choice of residence, or choice of employment in Hong Kong, although documents are needed to travel to the Chinese mainland. Use of the Telecommunications Ordinance and the Post Office Ordinance permitting the interception of communications requires high-level authorization but not a court-issued warrant.

Though women enjoy equal access to schooling and are protected under the basic law, according to the U.S. State Department's 2005 human rights report, there is nevertheless discrimination in employment, salary, welfare, inheritance, and promotion. Despite robust efforts by the SAR government to stop human trafficking, Hong Kong remains a point of transit and destination for persons trafficked for sexual exploitation or forced labor.