Hong Kong * | Freedom House

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Hong Kong *

Hong Kong *

Freedom in the World 2007

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Chief Executive Donald Tsang in 2006 rebounded from the defeat of his political reform package in December 2005, successfully representing the often competing interests of the people of Hong Kong and the Chinese leadership. With strong support from both Beijing and Hong Kong residents, Tsang appeared certain to be reelected as chief executive in March 2007. However, critics remained concerned about the progress of Hong Kong’s political reform, pointing to the passage of a controversial surveillance law in September 2006.

Located just off the southern Chinese coast, Hong Kong Island was ceded in perpetuity to Britain following the Opium War in 1842; adjacent territories were subsequently added, and the last section was leased to Britain in 1898 for a period of 99 years. Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule began in 1984 with the Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which London agreed to return the entire colony 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 constitution for Hong Kong known as the Basic Law. It was adopted by the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) in 1990, and was set to take full effect in 1997. The Basic Law, which stated that universal suffrage was the “ultimate aim” for Hong Kong, allowed direct elections for 18 seats in the territory’s 60-member legislature, known as the Legislative Council (Legco), beginning in 1991, with the gradual expansion of elected seats to 30 by 2003. “Functional constituencies”—business and social interest groups, many with close ties to Beijing—were to choose the remaining 30 seats. Hong Kong’s last British colonial governor, Christopher Patten, infuriated Beijing with his attempts to deepen democracy by giving ordinary residents a greater say in the selection of Legco’s indirectly elected members. After China took control in 1997, Beijing disbanded the partially elected Legco and installed a provisional legislature that repealed or tightened several civil liberties laws during its 10-month tenure.

Tung Chee-hwa was chosen by a Beijing-organized election committee to lead Hong Kong. Widely perceived as a mere proxy for the mainland government, Tung saw his popularity wane as Beijing became increasingly involved in Hong Kong’s affairs, and the economy suffered in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The government’s independence and credibility were questioned further in 2002, when officials introduced Basic Law Article 23, a draft antisubversion bill aimed at replacing colonial-era national security laws. The considerable powers the bill gave to the government led to fears that freedoms of speech and the press would be compromised, and opponents mounted massive protest demonstrations in July 2003. The bill was subsequently tabled, and authorities said it would not be reintroduced.

Following his reelection in 2002, Tung promised to consult with the public on changes to the electoral system. However, in April 2004, the NPC standing committee cut the debate short, unilaterally interpreting the Basic Law and issuing a ruling that rejected universal suffrage for either the 2007 chief executive or 2008 Legco elections. The NPC also maintained that political reform in Hong Kong could not occur without the standing committee’s prior approval. In July 2004, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a peaceful rally to protest the ruling.

In the September 2004 Legco elections, pro-Beijing parties retained control of the legislature, with prodemocracy parties winning only 25 of the 60 seats (18 of the 30 directly elected seats and 7 of the 30 seats chosen by functional constituencies). The elections were marred by incidents of intimidation and threats against candidates, journalists, and voters; much of this activity was thought to have been organized 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, with two years left to serve, the deeply unpopular Tung resigned as chief executive; he was replaced by Donald Tsang, a career civil servant from the British colonial administration. In another controversial interpretation of the Basic Law, largely reflecting Beijing’s concerns about Tsang’s political reliability, the NPC ruled that he would serve out the remainder of Tung’s term rather than a full five-year term as chief executive.

Tsang has been successful in representing the often competing interests of the people of Hong Kong and the Chinese leadership. His political reform package, which would have doubled the size of the committee that elected the chief executive and expanded Legco by five directly elected and five indirectly elected seats, was defeated in the legislature in December 2005. However, he rebounded from the loss in 2006, retaining Beijing’s backing and enjoying popularity ratings in Hong Kong of 60–70 percent. Apart from the continued economic recovery, Tsang’s popularity was boosted by Beijing’s restrained reaction to prodemocracy rallies in December 2005 and July 2006, as well as by expectations that Chinese President Hu Jintao would unveil a timetable for democracy when he made his planned first visit to the territory in July 2007, the tenth anniversary of the return to Chinese rule. While critics remained concerned about the progress of Hong Kong’s political reform, pointing to the passage of a controversial surveillance law in September 2006, there was no repeat that year of the widespread demonstrations that greeted the antisubversion bill in 2003. At the end of 2006, Tsang appeared certain to be reelected as chief executive in March 2007.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Hong Kong’s Basic Law calls for the election of a chief executive and a unicameral Legislative Council (Legco). The chief executive is elected by an 800-member committee: some 200,000 “functional constituency” voters—representing business and social interest groups, many with close ties to Beijing—elect 600 members, and the remaining 200 consist of Legco members, Hong Kong delegates to the NPC, religious representatives, and 41 members of the mainland’s Chinese People’s Consultative Conference. The Legco currently consists of 30 directly elected members and 30 members chosen by the functional constituency voters. The chief executive serves a five-year term, and Legco members serve four-year terms.

Although the Basic Law calls for the direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive and Legco, China’s NPC in April 2004 ruled out universal suffrage for the 2007 and 2008 elections, invoking the Basic Law’s caveat that the transition should be “gradual” and should proceed “in light of the actual situation.” The NPC concluded that Hong Kong was “not yet ready” for full democratic government.

In December 2005, Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s political reform package was defeated in the Legco after prodemocracy legislators refused to support a plan that did not include a timetable for universal suffrage. There were expectations in 2006 that Chinese President Hu Jintao would mark his first visit to Hong Kong in July 2007 by unveiling a road map for democracy in the territory.

The territory’s Basic Law restricts Legco’s lawmaking powers, prohibiting legislators from introducing bills that would affect 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” 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 2004 Legco elections were marred by voter and candidate intimidation and threats, largely at the hands of Chinese government supporters.

Hong Kong is generally regarded as having low rates of corruption, although it is apparent that business interests have considerable influence on Legco. The right to access government information is protected by law, and such information is provided to citizens in practice. Hong Kong was ranked 15 out of 163 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Under Article 27 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong residents enjoy freedom of speech, press, and publication. Hong Kong’s media are widely regarded as among the freest in East Asia. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media remain outspoken, and political debate is vigorous. International media organizations operate freely in Hong Kong, and foreign reporters do not need government-issued identification to operate. Hong Kong has 16 privately owned newspapers, although four of them are funded by pro-Beijing interests and follow the Chinese government’s lead on political issues. Observers remain concerned about media self-censorship, and the Falun Gong spiritual movement has encountered difficulty in trying to publish its Epoch Times newspaper. There are no restrictions on internet access.

The Basic Law provides for freedom of religion, which is generally respected in practice. Religious groups are specifically excluded from the Societies Ordinance, which requires nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register with the government. Falun Gong followers remain free to practice, and none have been denied entry into Hong Kong since 2004, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report.

University professors can write and lecture freely, and political debate on campuses is lively. Research is independent of the government.

Passage of the controversial Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance in September 2006, necessitated by a court decision finding that the existing grounds for police surveillance contravened the Basic Law, led to concerns that the measure gave the authorities too much power. Under the new law, the chief executive will appoint a panel of judges to approve surveillance activities, including telephone wiretaps and monitoring of e-mail correspondence.

The Basic Law also guarantees freedom of assembly and association. The police must be notified in advance of events, but they rarely if ever deny permits. Protests on “politically sensitive” issues are held regularly, including an annual commemoration of the 1989 crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Falun Gong followers frequently hold demonstrations against Beijing’s treatment of their counterparts in China.

Even the government’s staunchest critics acknowledge that Hong Kong residents enjoy the same basic rights as before the 1997 handover, but many of these rights are now on a weaker 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 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 NGOs, deregistering existing groups, and barring public protests, although these powers have not been exercised.

Hong Kong’s trade unions are independent, and membership is not restricted to a single trade, industry, or occupation. However, the 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, 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 reserves the right to make a final interpretation of the 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. Since foreign workers face deportation if dismissed, they remain fearful of bringing complaints against employers.

The government does not control travel, choice of residence, or choice of employment in Hong Kong, although documents are required to travel to the Chinese mainland. The Hong Kong SAR maintains its own immigration system independent of China. In 2004, mainland China relaxed travel restrictions to allow Chinese to visit Hong Kong as individuals, no longer requiring them to join tour groups. However, all Chinese visitors must obtain exit-entry permits from their local public security bureaus before traveling. Employers have to apply to bring workers from China into Hong Kong; direct applications from workers are not accepted.

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, published in March 2006, there is nevertheless discrimination in employment, salary, welfare, inheritance, and promotion. There has also been a worrying increase in the incidence of domestic violence, with one in five families reporting some form of domestic abuse in 2005. Despite robust efforts by the government to stop human trafficking, Hong Kong remains a point of transit and destination for persons trafficked for sexual exploitation or forced labor.