Hong Kong * | Freedom House

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Hong Kong *

Hong Kong *

Freedom in the World 2009

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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Pro-Beijing candidates retained their majority in September 2008 legislative elections, though the prodemocracy camp garnered 60 percent of the popular vote. While the polls were procedurally free and fair, the restricted franchise and subtle Beijing influence meant that the results did not fully reflect the people’s will. Also in 2008, restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly increased during certain Olympics-related events.

Hong Kong Island was ceded in perpetuity to Britain in 1842; adjacent territories were subsequently added, and the last section was leased to Britain in 1898 for a period of 99 years. In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, London agreed to restore the entire colony to China in 1997. In return, Beijing—under its “one country, two systems” formula—pledged to maintain the enclave’s legal, political, and economic autonomy for 50 years.

Under the 1984 agreement, a constitution for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), known as the Basic Law, took 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), with the gradual expansion of elected seats to 30 by 2003. “Functional constituencies”—business and social interest groups, many with close ties to Beijing—chose the remaining 30 seats. After China took control, it temporarily suspended the partially elected Legco and installed a provisional legislature that repealed or tightened several civil liberties laws during its 10-month tenure.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 in 1997. He saw his popularity wane as Beijing became increasingly involved in Hong Kong’s affairs, raising fears that civic freedoms would be compromised; officials were forced to withdraw a restrictive antisubversion bill—Basic Law Article 23—after it sparked massive protests in July 2003.

Pro-Beijing parties retained control of the Legco in 2004 elections, which were marred by intimidation and threats thought to have been organized by Beijing. In 2005, with two years left to serve, the deeply unpopular Tung resigned. He was replaced by career civil servant Donald Tsang, who China’s NPC decided would serve out the remainder of Tung’s term and then face election. In 2007, Hong Kong held its first contested election for chief executive, after the democracy supporters on the election committee voted as a block to nominate a second candidate, Alan Leong. However, Tsang won a new term by a wide margin, garnering 82 percent of the votes within the limited and mostly pro-Beijing electoral college.

During his first three years in power, Tsang was generally perceived as governing competently despite the 2006 passage of a controversial surveillance law. In 2008, however, his popularity dropped dramatically due to a combination of economic difficulties and policy blunders that raised public concerns about growing cronyism and weakening checks and balances. In August, Tsang’s approval rating reached an unprecedented low of 29 percent.

Pro-Beijing parties again won Legco elections in September 2008, taking 30 seats, although few of those were elected by popular vote. Independents, several of whom were thought to have Beijing’s support, won seven seats. The prodemocracy camp won the remaining 23 seats, 19 of them by popular vote, meaning they would have enough seats to retain a veto over proposed constitutional reforms. This relative success came despite a rise in Chinese nationalist sentiment associated with the Beijing Olympics in August and a devastating mainland earthquake in May. The pro-business Liberal Party lost most of its seats in the voting, while the relatively new League of Social Democrats, which campaigned on a social justice platform, gained seats. Observers said the results reflected growing voter concern over bread-and-butter issues during a period of economic hardship.

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—representatives of various elite sectors, many with close ties to Beijing—elect 600 members, and the remaining 200 consist of Legco members, Hong Kong delegates to China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), religious representatives, and41 members of the Chinese People’s PoliticalConsultative Conference (CPPCC), a mainland advisory body. The chief executive serves a five-year term.

The Legco consists of 30 directly elected members and 30 members chosen by the functional constituency voters. Legco members serve four-year terms. The territory’s Basic Law restricts the Legco’s lawmaking powers, prohibiting legislators from introducing bills that would affect Hong Kong’s public spending, governmental operations, or political structure. In Hong Kong’s multiparty system, the five main parties are the prodemocracy Democratic Party, Civic Party, and League of Social Democrats (LSD), alongside the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and the pro-business Liberal Party. In August, police arrested two men in a foiled assassination plot against Martin Lee, the Democratic Party’s now retired founder and one of the most prominent prodemocracy politicians in Hong Kong; the motives behind the attempt remained unclear at year’s end.

The September 2008 Legco elections, which garnered a lower turnout than in 2004, were procedurally free and fair, but the semidemocratic structure of the legislature meant that the prodemocracy camp remained a minority despite winning nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. Unlike in 2004, the elections were not accompanied by overt intimidation or threats. Beijing’s influence was nonetheless evident, as it shifted support from the Liberal Party to nominally independent candidates, particularly via campaigning by the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions. At least 108 election-related complaints, mostly over corruption allegations, were submitted to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

In January 2008, a 1,231-member election panel selected Hong Kong’s 36 delegates to the NPC; they included several serving Legco members, as well as academics and members of the business community.

While the Basic Law calls for the eventual direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive and Legco, the NPC maintains that political reform in Hong Kong cannot occur without its prior approval. In December 2007, it delayed democratic reform for the second time, ruling out universal suffrage until at least 2017 for the chief executive and 2020 for the Legco.

Hong Kong is generally regarded as having low rates of corruption, although business interests have considerable influence on the Legco. In 2008, there was a 6 percent increase in the number of individuals prosecuted for corruption. The right to access government information is protected by law and observed in practice. Hong Kong was ranked 12 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Under Article 27 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong residents enjoy freedoms of speech, press, and publication. These rights are generally respected in practice, and political debate is vigorous. The city has dozens of daily newspapers in both Chinese and English, while residents have access to international radio broadcasts and satellite television.International media organizations operate without interference. Nonetheless, in recent years, Beijing’s influence over media and free expression has increased, prompting growing self-censorship, particularly on issues deemed sensitive by the central government. The Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program reported that 45.8 percent of journalists polled in 2008 believed that press freedom had deteriorated since 1997, mainly due to self-censorship. This stemmed in part from the close relationship between media owners and the central government; in a formalization of these ties, 10 owners—nearly half of the media owners in the territory, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association—were named to the CPPCC in early 2008. There was a freeze on new film releases during the Olympics, reportedly due to pressure from the central government. In February 2008, following an international campaign on his behalf, Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong was released early from prison in China where he had been sentenced on what many believed were trumped up charges of spying for Taiwan.

Authorities continued to obstruct broadcasts by the prodemocracy station Citizens’ Radio in 2008, after its license application was rejected in 2006; several activists faced criminal charges at year’s end, and the authorities raided the station and confiscated equipment in December. In January 2008, a magistrate found that the existing licensing system was unconstitutional, as decisions to grant or refuse licenses are taken by the executive branch rather than an independent body; parts of the ruling were subsequently overturned by a higher court, but the constitutionality question remained unresolved at year’s end. Controversy continued during the year over the future of the government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which has functioned as an editorially independent outlet. A 2007 review panel had recommended that a new public broadcaster be established but did not comment on RTHK’s future—findings that were widely interpreted as a threat to media freedom and the continued existence of RTHK.  In January 2008, the government announced that a promised consultation exercise on RTHK’s future had been put on hold indefinitely. Internet access in Hong Kong was not restricted.

The Basic Law provides for freedom of religion, which is generally respected in practice. Religious groups are excluded from the Societies Ordinance, which requires nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register with the government. Falun Gong followers remain free to practice in the territory despite facing repression on the mainland. A number of Falun Gong adherents, however, as well as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, were denied entry to the territory during periods surrounding Olympics-related events. University professors can write and lecture freely, and political debate on campuses is lively.

The 2006 Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance gives the chief executive the authority to appoint a panel of judges to approve surveillance activities, including telephone wiretaps and monitoring of e-mail correspondence. The measure has raised serious civil liberties concerns among democracy activists.

The Basic Law guarantees freedoms of assembly and association. Police permits for demonstrations are necessary though rarely denied. Protests on “politically sensitive” issues are held regularly. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic torch relay, at least 10 activists who had planned to participate in events highlighting rights abuses in China were denied entry or prevented from leaving the mainland. The most high-profile case was that of a Danish sculptor who intended to participate in a prodemocracy protest, but was denied entry. During the torch relay itself, prodemocracy and pro-Tibet protesters faced intimidation and threats from Beijing supporters; in one instance, a university student staging a pro-Tibet demonstration was forcibly removed by police. Government restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression also occurred during the Olympic equestrian events held in Hong Kong in August.

Despite such incidents, Hong Kong residents enjoy many of the same basic rights as before the 1997 handover, though these 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, including the legal basis for collective bargaining and protections against summary dismissal for union activity.

Hong Kong’s trade unions are independent, and membership is not restricted to a single industry. However, the laws restrict some basic labor rights and do not protect others. Though strikes are legal in the territory and several occurred in 2008, many workers sign contracts stating that job walkouts could be grounds for summary dismissal. In October, the government pledged to establish a statutory minimum wage.

The common-law judiciary is independent, and the trial process is fair. 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. However, the NPC has not directly intervened in court cases in several years and local courts have continued to function independently.

Hong Kong’s police force, which remains firmly under the control of civilian authorities, is not known to be corrupt. Police are forbidden by law to employ torture and other forms of abuse. However, official figures indicated that police conducted over 1,600 strip searches between July and September. Arbitrary arrest and detention are 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 population of 200,000 foreign domestic workers remains vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. Since foreign workers face deportation if dismissed, many are fearful of bringing complaints against employers. A race discrimination law passed in July 2008 fell short of international standards, as it did not cover government actions and effectively excluded mainlanders, immigrants, and migrant workers.

The government does not control travel, choice of residence, or employment within Hong Kong, although documents are required to travel to the Chinese mainland, and employers have to apply to bring workers from China; direct applications from workers are not accepted.The Hong Kong SAR maintains its own immigration system. An appellate court ruling in July 2008 found that policies on the detention of nonresidents seeking to enter Hong Kong violated the bill of rights, and hundreds of detainees were subsequently released. Separately, nine Legco members and several human rights activists from Hong Kong were barred entry to Macau in December while seeking to join prodemocracy protests there; many of them are regularly barred from the mainland as well.

Women are protected by law from discrimination and abuse and are entitled to equal access to schooling, as well as to property in divorce settlements. However, women continue to face discrimination in employment opportunities, salary, inheritance, and welfare; 11 of the 60 Legco members elected in 2008 were women. Despite robust efforts by the government, Hong Kong remains a point of transit and destination for persons trafficked for sexual exploitation or forced labor.