Current vs. envisioned parliamentary system in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Author:Gagnon-Belanger, Rosette

The future of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was sealed in the Joint Declaration of 1984 and the Basic Law of 1990 between the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China. Was the United Kingdom genuine and realistic when it publicly defended Hong Kong's right to complete and universal democratic elections in the 1990s and in the last few years? The legal rights and obligations set out in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, a legal document in Hong Kong with legal standing equivalent to a national constitution, tend to support a different approach. In this article, the author argues that the terms agreed upon in those two fundamental documents established Hong Kong as a region with greater socio-economic and political autonomy, while setting obstacles to the development of a government elected through universal suffrage.


Before the first Opium War (1842), Hong Kong was not a land of particular interest for China. The population was a mere 7,500, with very few foreigners. Hong Kong Island was transferred to the United Kingdom after the war (1843), and the remaining part of the current Hong Kong territory by 1898. Until the 1980s, local residents of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong were not involved in the government, but the demand for participation was also negligible as Hong Kong enjoyed economic development and civil liberties. With the announcement of the Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China (referred to as the Joint Declaration hereinafter) in 1984 on the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the UK introduced election reforms in the hopes of establishing and securing a democratic government on the territory.

The Joint Declaration, along with the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, legal document to which all post-1997 laws must conform, set the grounds for all branches of government. Comprehending the role and influence of the National People's Congress Standing Committee is central to understanding the current parliamentary system in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). There is an ongoing concern about the extent to which parliamentary traditions introduced prior to the hand-over to the PRC will lead to a democratic system in Hong Kong. The upcoming election of the Chief Executive in 2017 is particularly important as it will set the bar for the Legislative Election of 2020 and the type of governance in Hong Kong. This article compares the current system in HKSAR with what was envisioned by the UK, the PRC and the Hong Kong people prior to the 1997 hand-over.

The United Kingdom-Hong Kong Relations

The Treaty of Nanking ceded the Hong Kong territory to the United Kingdom in 1843. (1) Then, territories surrounding Hong Kong, namely the New Territories, along with more than 235 islands, were transferred to the United Kingdom by the two Conventions of Peking (1860 and 1898). The Second Convention, signed when a Qing Dynasty in decline who refused to cede in perpetuity more territories, leased for 99 years the New Territories, which explains the return of Hong Kong in 1997. By the end of the 1960s, life in Hong Kong had improved significantly and opposition to British rule by Hong Kong residents declined accordingly. The socio-economic benefits that trickled-down to Hong Kong residents were enough for the majority of them to accept restricted access to governance.

The UK and the People's Republic of China (PRC) began discussing the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China in 1982 and ratified the Joint Declaration in 1984. (2) However, certain factors, mainly the 1989 Tiananmen Square tragedy, and the increasing fear of currency instability by foreign investors, affected the talks around the democratization of the Hong Kong legislative and executive branches.

Moreover, the sentiment of the local population with regard to greater participation of Hong Kong residents in the government evolved as fears grew of potential economic and social changes in their way of life under Chinese sovereignty. Of course, a shift from a capitalist to a communist system was never in the cards. China understood that such change would have (1) strongly impacted Hong Kong and indirectly China's economy and (2) potentially been counterproductive for China's ultimate goal to showcase the "one country, two systems" as a successful approach that could in turn be applied to the PRC's territorial conflict with Taiwan. However, the future of Hong Kong residents' ability to participate democratically in governance through free elections and limited candidacy restrictions and to enjoy civil liberties was less certain.

Discussion between the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China

The negotiation around the terms of the transfer began during the visit of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to China in 1982. The discussions touched on the administrative procedure for the handover and the governance system that would be in place in Hong Kong after July 1, 1997,...

To continue reading