Hong Kong’s Exceptionalism Explained: Why is Hong Kong So Different from China?

Hong Kong’s Exceptionalism Explained: Why is Hong Kong So Different from China?

0 By Emily Lim

Part I: Historical and political divisions.

Hong Kong is known for its high-rise skyline, dim sum, booming finance industry, and vibrant night-life – but also for its unique political position as a Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.) of China.  Late 2014 saw Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement – also known colloquially as the ‘Umbrella Movement’ – make global headlines as the world was astonished by 100,000 Hong Kongers of all ages peacefully occupying Hong Kong’s central business district, in a protest against the Chinese Communist Party and its attempts to undermine the development of genuine democracy in Hong Kong. What historical, political, economic, social, and cultural differences have fostered divisions and sowed tensions between China and Hong Kong? Why is Hong Kong so different from China?

Today a global economy with a population of over 7 million, Hong Kong was transformed by British colonization. Hong Kong had been part of China since 50 B.C.E. However, following the Opium Wars against the British, in which the Chinese were forced to surrender, China agreed to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain in 1842. In 1898, Hong Kong’s New Territories were leased to Britain for 99 years. By 1997, when the British lease came to its end, Hong Kong had not been a part of China for over 150 years.

The 150 years that Hong Kong spent separate from China were formative in the history of both nations. The Chinese experienced the fall of the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, in 1911. The country was ravaged both by decades of civil war in the ensuing power struggle between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists and by the Japanese invasion during World War Two. In 1949, Mao ZeDong unified China under a single-party, Communist government. China experienced economic disaster during the 1958-62 Great Leap Forward – Mao’s second economic five year plan for industrialization, during which the combination of failed agricultural methods, starvation, and political purges left over 20 million dead. In 1967, China faced social upheaval as the Cultural Revolution banned orthodox religious customs, encouraged students to rebel against their teachers, and saw the changing of the Chinese written form to simplified Chinese characters. It was not until Mao’s death in 1976 that China was able to experience economic recovery in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping.






Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s narrative in the 150 years under British rule was very different. Some analysts have seen Hong Kong as a haven for pre-communist Chinese traditional culture. In the 1920s, Hong Kong’s Governor Cecil Clementi hired Manchu officials and scholars from the old Qing regime to teach Chinese classics in Hong Kong’s universities in an attempt to alienate Hong Kongers from striking workers in Guangzhou, China. Although Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese from 1941 to 1945, the island experienced an economic revival based on light industries such as textile manufacturing in the 1950s. By 1970s, Hong Kong had earned the reputation as an “Asian Tiger” – globally renowned as an economic powerhouse, its thriving economy was based on high-tech manufacturing. Untouched by the turmoil and devastation just across the border, Hong Kong developed its own unique culture: pre-communist, traditional Chinese culture blended with its heritage as a British crown colony. Given the divergent paths that the two nations have taken, it is not difficult to see why many Hong Kongers do not identify with their Chinese counterparts.

In 1982, British-Sino talks regarding the future of Hong Kong were opened. The British and Chinese governments signed a Joint Declaration in 1984, which established the Basic Law, which would become Hong Kong’s constitution. Under Article 31 of the Chinese constitution, Hong Kong was given the status of a Special Administrative Region. In the Basic Law, Hong Kong is given a high degree of autonomy over all domestic affairs, but not over all foreign affairs; Hong Kong is prohibited from the right to delegate representatives in international diplomacy and to have an independent military. Under the Basic Law, which stipulates a “one country-two systems” principle, Hong Kong enjoys the constitutional guarantees of relatively independent political, economic, electoral, and legal systems. Hong Kong has its own currency, its own passport, its own Olympic team, its own Chief Executive, its own legislative body, and judicial system.

HK Wanchai tram 1940s


Electorally, Hong Kong and China are very different. The Chinese system features 3,000 National People’s Congress and 2,000 Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference delegates. These delegates are put forth by grass-roots units for the purposes of acting as voting representatives of the people. These delegates elect governors, mayors, heads of counties, districts, towns, and others. However, these voting representatives are pre-screened by higher levels in the Communist party leadership; while in name China is a multi-party socialist state led by the Communist party, in reality the membership of these two legislative bodies are predetermined by the Chinese Communist Party.

On the other hand, Hong Kong has a partially democratic, multi-party legislative body. Hong Kongers can vote for representatives in 18 district councils, who are elected every four years. Although these consultative bodies can advise the government on community and local matters, representatives possess what has been called a ‘passive’ power: they are unable to make laws or allocate public funds. The Legislative Council (LegCo) is Hong Kong’s unicameral legislative body and is headed by the Chief Executive. Currently, the Chief Executive is elected by members of Hong Kong’s electoral college, the Election Committee, who in turn are elected by a limited number of voters. According to Annex I of the Basic Law, these voters are ‘broadly representative’ of four major sectors: industrial, commercial and financial; the professions; members of Hong Kong’s domestic administration including LegCo members and District Council represenatives; and labor and social sectors. Of the 70 seats in LegCo, Hong Kong permanent residents can vote for 35 seats in the geographical constituencies and 5 seats of the functional constituencies.


Although Hong Kong’s legislative body and Chief Executive are not elected in full by the masses, there still exists a certain degree of democratic freedom that does not exist in China. For example, the one-child policy has never applied to Hong Kong; in 2013, the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index placed Hong Kong at 58th in the world, with China lagging far behind at 173rd placeHong Kong has its own legal system based upon the British Common Law, and boasts an independent judiciary which wields the power of rule of law; in China, the law is often used for political purposes. Nicknamed the “city of protests” for the tendency of its people to freely rise up against their government, Hong Kong truly is a beacon of freedom of expression in Southeast Asia.

A bustling city untouched by the tumultuous years under Mao in China, Hong Kong and China have emerged into the twenty-first century as two nations very politically divided. In terms of electoral systems, the judicial systems, the rights to freedom of expression and protest, and international reputation, Hong Kong and China are very different.

Part II of this series on the differences between Hong Kong and China will feature in January.

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