Hong Kong * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017

Hong Kong *


Freedom Status: 
Partly Free

Freedom in the World Scores

(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Partly Free
Net Freedom Status: 

Trend Arrow:

Hong Kong received a downward trend arrow due to Beijing’s encroachment on freedoms in the territory, reflected in the detention by mainland authorities of five Hong Kong booksellers, shrinking journalistic and academic independence, and the central government’s unilateral reinterpretation of the Basic Law in an apparent bid to exclude pro-independence and prodemocracy lawmakers from the Legislative Council.


The people of Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, have traditionally enjoyed substantial civil liberties and the rule of law under their local constitution, the Basic Law. However, the chief executive and half of the Legislative Council are chosen through indirect electoral systems that favor pro-Beijing figures, and the territory’s freedoms and autonomy have come under threat in recent years due to growing political and economic pressure from the mainland.

Key Developments: 
  • Ahead of Legislative Council elections in September, Hong Kong authorities refused to register a new pro-independence political party and invalidated the nominations of six “localist” candidates in connection with their views on self-determination for the territory.
  • In November, the National People’s Congress in Beijing issued an unsolicited interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law that requires oaths of office to be given “sincerely and solemnly,” effectively barring two newly elected localists from taking their seats in the Legislative Council and prompting legal challenges against the status of four other lawmakers.
  • Five Hong Kong booksellers, known for their publication and distribution of books that were critical of the Chinese leadership, resurfaced in early 2016 after their disappearance in late 2015, confirming that they had been in the custody of mainland police and issuing statements that raised suspicions of coercion.
Executive Summary: 

Hong Kong voters turned out in large numbers for the September 2016 Legislative Council (Legco) elections, which featured the emergence of a localist movement alongside existing pro-Beijing and prodemocracy camps. The new movement, which grew out of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, emphasizes greater autonomy or independence from mainland control, as opposed to the prodemocracy camp’s push for direct elections as promised in Hong Kong’s Basic Law under the current “one country, two systems” framework for Chinese rule. The localists faced major obstacles from Hong Kong authorities, including refusal to register a newly formed localist party and the invalidation of the nominations of some localist candidates due to their political views. Nonetheless, other localist candidates won 6 of the 70 Legco seats. Pro-Beijing parties won 40 seats, prodemocracy parties won 23, and the remaining seat went to an independent.

After some winning localist and prodemocracy candidates altered their oaths of office as a form of protest, the National People’s Congress in Beijing issued an unusual interpretation of the Basic Law in November, declaring that such oaths must be given “sincerely and solemnly” to be valid. Unlike previous interpretations, it was issued while local courts were still considering the case at hand, and without a request from the Hong Kong government. Two localists were consequently barred from taking their seats, and Hong Kong authorities challenged the validity of the oaths of four other lawmakers who had already been seated. While the former case was awaiting a final appeal at year’s end, the courts had yet to rule on the latter.

Separately, five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared in late 2015 resurfaced in early 2016, officially confirming that they were in the custody of mainland authorities. Their company had been known for publishing and distributing books that were critical of China’s leaders. Each made public statements through state and Hong Kong media in which they “confessed” to wrongdoing, though observers cast doubt on the authenticity of the statements given China’s record of obtaining forced confessions. One of the detainees, after returning to Hong Kong in June, spoke out against the circumstances of his detention and said his confession had been forced and scripted. The case raised concerns about civil liberties and the rule of law in Hong Kong, as it suggested that residents were vulnerable to punishment in the mainland’s politically controlled justice system for actions taken at home.

Hong Kong press freedom advocates continued to criticize the creeping growth of pro-Beijing pressure on journalistic expression, accusing media owners of encouraging self-censorship to favor the central government’s interests. Meanwhile, students and scholars staged demonstrations against increasing pro-Beijing influence on academic administration.

Aggregate Score: 
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