Geoffrey GUNN

Macao Ferry Pier. The ferry connects one Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong, to another, Macao. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

With the return of the former British colony of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the city became a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong SAR is now an independent and, for the most part, self-governing entity of China. While it does not have control over defense and foreign affairs, Hong Kong maintains an image as China’s international city; it joined the World Trade Organization in 1995, six years ahead of the PRC.

Hong Kong, with Macao, is one of two Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Established in 1997 with the return of the former British colony to Chinese sovereignty, the Hong Kong SAR, as a virtual administrative district of China, is a legal entity underwritten by the Basic Law, or mini-constitution. The Hong Kong Basic Law, established between the former administrating power, Britain, and China, was in turn drafted in accordance with the joint declaration entered into by London and Beijing in 1984 and adopted by the Seventh National People’s Congress (NPC) of the PRC in 1994.

Establishment of SARs was first provided for in Article 31 of the Constitution of the PRC promulgated in 1983. Still, one should acknowledge that in 1972 the PRC ambassador to the United Nations, Huang Hua, formally placed on record at the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization China’s policy on the return of Hong Kong and Macao as legacies of “unequal treaties.” Hong Kong and Macao were duly removed from the list of territories pending decolonization.

The “one country, two systems” formula imposed on Hong Kong would, two years later, also become binding on Macao, then under Portuguese administration, and remains the formula that Beijing seeks to apply to Taiwan.

The Sino-British Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law stipulate that Hong Kong will be governed with a high degree of autonomy until 2047, or fifty years after the transfer.

Although maintaining a high degree of autonomy (Article 2), the Hong Kong SAR is short of being an independent jurisdiction, especially as Beijing retains control over foreign affairs and defense. Under the SAR formula, Chinese-style socialism is not to be introduced into Hong Kong; rather, its prevailing capitalist system and way of life are guaranteed for fifty years (Article 5).

Notwithstanding Beijing’s control over foreign affairs and defense, Hong Kong maintains an international legal personality. For example, since 1992 Hong Kong has been a member of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, and on 1 January 1995 Hong Kong gained membership in the World Trade Organization ahead of China. Today, with Beijing’s concurrence, Hong Kong is party to hundreds of conventions, organizations, and agreements under the “Hong Kong, China” name.

The chief executive—head of government—in the Hong Kong SAR is indirectly elected by a college of five hundred to eight hundred members closely sanctioned by Beijing. Tung Chee Hwa, the first chief executive, assumed office on 1 July 1997. His successor, Donald Tsang, took office on 16 June 2005.

Laws are enacted with the approval of the chief executive and the majority consent of members of the sixty-seat Legislative Council (Legco), currently (under the third post-handover term) with half directly elected and half indirectly selected by “functional constituencies.” As of 2008 thirty “functional constituency” lawmakers are elected by sixteen thousand voters in twenty-eight business and professional sectors. For many people in Hong Kong such an arrangement appears to be a colonial legacy reflecting vested business interests and inimical to full democratization. The Basic Law does, however, provide for the eventual election of all seats under universal suffrage. Elections were held in 1998, 2000, and 2004, with candidates representing a range of political views from openly pro-Beijing to democratic and reformist. Deemed especially controversial was the proposal by the government to enact an anti-subversion law based on an interpretation of Basic Law Article 23. Public outrage over the proposal, viewed as a threat to civil liberties and even foreign business, has brought a shift in public attitudes in favor of greater democratization. Protests against the proposal were been led by the so-called pan-democrat camp, with the chief executive playing the role of broker between Hong Kong public opinion and civil society actions and the NPC. Importantly, the Standing Committee of the NPC has the power to interpret the Basic Law (Article 159).

On 29 December 2007 the Standing Committee ruled out the possibility of universal suffrage for the election of both the chief executive and all legislators in 2012 as per the registered wishes of a majority of Hong Kong residents. Although the NPC did concede the direct election of the chief executive by 2017, many questions remain as to the modalities of such an election, especially because Beijing insists on preapproval of all candidates. Although the NPC held out the prospect of a future directly elected Legco and the chief executive backed 2020 as a goal, the NPC also insisted on freezing the 50–50 split between directly elected and “functional constituency” seats in the Legco, thus disallowing even incremental democratization in the 2012 elections. Although a timetable for democratization has been established, frustration remains among those disappointed at the slow pace of change and loopholes that would allow even the decision on 2017 to be changed at any time.

Much uncertainty hounded the early years of the Hong Kong SAR, created by sagging real estate values, the outbreak of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus, the worldwide economic downturn, and unacceptable pollution levels; nevertheless, few would doubt that Hong Kong retains its vitality and image as Asia’s international city, notwithstanding the challenges posed by massive economic and social change within China itself.

Further Reading

Cheng, Joseph. Y. S. (Ed.). (2007). The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in its first decade. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press.

Fu, Hualing, Harvis, L., & Young, S. (Eds.). (2007). Interpreting Hong Kong’s Basic Law: The struggle for coherence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Usai, P. C., Francis, D., Horwath, A., & Loebenstein, M. (Eds.). (2007). The first decade: The Hong Kong SAR in retrospective and introspective perspective. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Source: Gunn, Geoffrey. (2009). Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1049–1051. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Xi?ngg?ng Tèbiéxíngzhèngq? ???????)|Xi?ngg?ng Tèbiéxíngzhèngq? ??????? (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region)

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