Hong Kong’s Freedoms: What China Promised and How It’s Cracking Down

Hong Kong’s Freedoms: What China Promised and How It’s Cracking Down

Beijing has tightened its grip on Hong Kong in recent years, dimming hopes that the financial center will ever become a full democracy.
Daniel Wong Kwok-tung, a lawyer, is arrested by Hong Kong police in January 2021.
Daniel Wong Kwok-tung, a lawyer, is arrested by Hong Kong police in January 2021. Tyrone Siu/Reuters
  • Before the British government handed over Hong Kong in 1997, China agreed to allow the region considerable political autonomy for fifty years under a framework known as “one country, two systems.” 
  • In recent years, Beijing has cracked down on Hong Kong’s freedoms, stoking mass protests in the city and drawing international criticism. 
  • Beijing imposed a national security law in 2020 that gave it broad new powers to punish critics and silence dissenters, which has fundamentally altered life for Hong Kongers.


China pledged to preserve much of what makes Hong Kong unique when the former British colony was handed over more than two decades ago. Beijing said it would give Hong Kong fifty years to keep its capitalist system and enjoy many freedoms not found in mainland Chinese cities. 

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But in recent years, Beijing has taken increasingly brazen steps to encroach on Hong Kong’s political system and crack down on dissent. In 2020, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong. Since then, authorities have arrested dozens of pro-democracy activists, lawmakers, and journalists; curbed voting rights; and limited freedoms of the press and speech. These moves have not only drawn international condemnation but have also raised questions about Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub and dimmed hopes that the city will ever become a full-fledged democracy.

Is Hong Kong part of China? 

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Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China that has, until recently, largely been free to manage its own affairs based on “one country, two systems,” a national unification policy developed by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. The concept was intended to help integrate Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau with sovereign China while preserving their unique political and economic systems. After more than a century and a half of colonial rule, the British government returned Hong Kong in 1997. (Qing Dynasty leaders ceded Hong Kong Island to the British Crown in 1842 after China’s defeat in the First Opium War.) Portugal returned Macau in 1999, and Taiwan remains independent.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 dictated the terms under which Hong Kong was returned to China. The declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s constitutional document, enshrine the city’s “capitalist system and way of life” and grant it “a high degree of autonomy,” including executive, legislative, and independent judicial powers for fifty years (until 2047).

Chinese Communist Party officials do not preside over Hong Kong as they do over mainland provinces and municipalities, but Beijing still exerts considerable influence through loyalists who dominate the region’s political sphere. Beijing also maintains the authority to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a power that it had rarely used until recently. All changes to political processes are supposed to be approved by the Hong Kong government and China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress, or its Standing Committee. 

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Hong Kong is allowed to forge external relations in certain areas—including trade, communications, tourism, and culture—but Beijing maintains control over the region’s diplomacy and defense. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kongers are supposed to be guaranteed freedoms of the press, expression, assembly, and religion, as well as protections under international law. But in practice, Beijing has curtailed some of these rights.

Was Hong Kong ever a democracy?

Although Hong Kong has certain freedoms, it has never been rated a full democracy [PDF] by international standards. China is a one-party state and is reluctant to allow Hong Kong to hold free and fair elections. Experts say that ambiguity in the Basic Law heightens this fundamental tension. The document states that the “ultimate aim” is to have Hong Kong’s leader elected by a popular vote, but it does not give a deadline for this to occur.

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Since the handover, there have been no free votes by universal suffrage for the chief executive, who is the head of the Hong Kong government. The chief executive is instead chosen by an election committee composed of representatives from Hong Kong’s dominant professional sectors and business elite. Hong Kong residents were previously allowed to vote for members of the legislature, known as the Legislative Council, or LegCo, as well as for members of their local district councils, which handle day-to-day community concerns.

But more recently, Beijing has worked to curb Hong Kong residents’ already limited voting rights. It overhauled the electoral system in 2021 to make it easier for pro-Beijing candidates to be appointed as chief executive and as LegCo members. Beijing ruled that only “patriots” who “respect” the Chinese Communist Party can run in elections. Only one candidate was allowed to run in the 2022 chief executive election: John Lee, a hard-line former deputy chief of the city’s police force. For the LegCo, prior to 2021, half of the body’s seventy members were elected by direct voting, while the rest were chosen by groups representing different industries and professions. Now, just twenty members are directly elected and seventy are chosen. In response to these changes, pro-democracy groups boycotted the 2021 LegCo elections, and all ninety seats went to pro-Beijing individuals.

Unlike China, Hong Kong has numerous political parties. They have traditionally split between two factions: pan-democrats, who call for incremental democratic reforms, and pro-establishment groups, who are by and large pro-business supporters of Beijing. The latter have typically been more dominant in Hong Kong politics. (Historically, only a small minority of Hong Kongers have favored outright independence.) Since 2014, student protesters demanding a more democratic system have formed several political groups, including more radical, anti-Beijing parties such as Youngspiration, Hong Kong Indigenous, and Demosisto. But the power of these groups and pro-democracy parties have weakened significantly as Beijing has cracked down on political opposition, including via the national security law. Several parties have disbanded, and members have been forbidden from running in elections or jailed. 

How has Beijing eroded Hong Kong’s freedoms?

Beijing has been chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms since the handover, experts say. Over the years, its attempts to impose more control over the city have sparked mass protests, which have in turn led the Chinese government to crack down further. 

“In the fifteen years after the handover, there was a series of official initiatives aimed at enhancing Beijing’s control in ways that would undermine both the autonomy and the rule of law,” Michael C. Davis writes in his book Making Hong Kong China.

For instance, in 2003, the Hong Kong government proposed national security legislation that would have prohibited treason, secession, sedition, and subversion against the Chinese government. In 2012, it tried to amend Hong Kong schools’ curricula to foster Chinese national identity, which many residents saw as Chinese propaganda. And in 2014, Beijing proposed a framework for universal suffrage, allowing Hong Kongers to vote for the city’s chief executive but only from a Beijing-approved short list of candidates. Protesters organized massive rallies, known as the Umbrella Movement, to call for true democracy.

In the years following the 2014 protests, Beijing and the Hong Kong government stepped up efforts to rein in dissent, including by prosecuting protest leaders, expelling several new legislators, and increasing media censorship.


In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong saw its largest protests ever. For months, people demonstrated against a Beijing-endorsed legislative proposal that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Many protesters believed Beijing had eroded Hong Kong’s freedoms to such an extent that they thought, “either we stop it now, or it’s just basically going to be hell,” says Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame. Reports of police brutality, including the excessive use of tear gas and rubber bullets, exacerbated tensions. Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdrew the bill in September, but the protests, which garnered international attention, continued until the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020.

What is the national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong?

Beijing took its most assertive action yet on June 30, 2020, when it bypassed the Hong Kong legislature and imposed a national security law [PDF] on the city. The legislation effectively criminalizes any dissent and adopts extremely broad definitions for crimes such as terrorism, subversion, secession, and collusion with foreign powers. It also allows Beijing to establish a security force in Hong Kong and influence the selection of judges who hear national security cases. Pro-democracy activists and lawmakers decried the move and expressed fears that it could be “the end of Hong Kong.” Meanwhile, Chinese officials and pro-Beijing lawmakers said it was necessary to restore stability following the massive protests.

Authorities have used the law to try to eliminate all forms of political opposition. They disqualified pro-democracy candidates from running in elections and removed elected lawmakers for publicly opposing China’s control over Hong Kong. Police have arrested at least 170 people under the law, many of them prominent pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers, and journalists. Thousands more people have been arrested for participating in the 2019 protests. Beijing and the Hong Kong government have also curbed media freedoms, with pro-democracy publications such as the Apple Daily newspaper closing after journalists were harassed and jailed. Moreover, groups that organized protests disbanded. The Hong Kong government’s efforts to transform the public education system by introducing so-called patriotic programs have also troubled many parents and students. 

These moves have by and large ended mass public protests and silenced many Hong Kong residents who fought for democracy. Thousands of people, including prominent activists, have fled the city.

What has been the international response to Beijing’s actions?

Several countries have condemned Beijing’s moves and taken retaliatory measures. Under President Donald Trump, the United States imposed sanctions on Chinese officials it alleged were undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy, restricted exports of defense equipment to Hong Kong, and revoked its special trade status. It also joined a handful of countries, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, that suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong because of the national security law. President Joe Biden has maintained the sanctions, voiced concerns about Beijing’s crackdown in conversations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and warned U.S. companies of the “growing risks” [PDF] of doing business in Hong Kong. In August 2021, the Biden administration deferred deportations of the several thousand Hong Kong residents in the United States. 

The United Kingdom (UK), which also ended its extradition agreement with the region, said it would allow three million Hong Kong residents to settle in the country and apply for citizenship. Canada announced measures to make it easier for Hong Kong youth to study and work in the country, creating pathways for permanent residency. The European Union, which expressed “grave concern” about the national security law, limited exports of equipment that China could use for repression. 

However, the opposition has not been unanimous. Fifty-three countries—most of which are participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative—signed a statement read before the UN Human Rights Council in July 2020 supporting the national security law, while twenty-seven countries signed a statement criticizing it.

What does Beijing’s crackdown mean for Hong Kong’s financial status? 

Hong Kong is still a global financial hub, but Beijing’s actions could jeopardize its standing. Relatively low taxes, a highly developed financial system, light regulation, and other capitalist features have made Hong Kong one of the world’s most attractive markets and set it apart from mainland financial hubs such as Shanghai and Shenzhen. Multinational firms and banks—many of which maintain regional headquarters in Hong Kong—have historically used the city as a gateway to do business in the mainland, owing in part to its proximity to the world’s second-largest economy and its legal system based on British common law. 

However, executives of some companies with large footprints in Hong Kong have voiced concerns about the national security law, criticizing the broad powers given to mainland authorities. The Biden administration has cautioned that companies could violate the vague national security law without realizing it. “Beijing’s ideal scenario is to keep Hong Kong as a financial center without all the freedom. But it seems that you really cannot maintain Hong Kong’s international financial standing while stifling its freedom,” Hui says.

“It seems that you really cannot maintain Hong Kong’s international financial standing while stifling its freedom.”
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, University of Notre Dame

Some firms have left the city or are boosting hiring in other Asian financial capitals, such as Singapore and Tokyo. The number of American companies with regional bases in Hong Kong fell to an eighteen-year low in 2021. Meanwhile, nearly half of European firms are considering fully or partially moving out of the city by 2023, according to a survey by the European Chamber of Commerce [PDF]. Social media companies, in particular, have expressed unease about a part of the law that requires them to surrender requested user data to the Hong Kong government. TikTok, an app owned by mainland-based company ByteDance, suspended operations in the city.

Also to blame for the exodus are Hong Kong’s COVID-19 restrictions, including a lengthy quarantine requirement and other strict measures imposed in an attempt to align with Beijing’s zero-COVID policy. Authorities banned flights from several countries, including the United States and the UK, as well as restricted gatherings. These moves have led economists to lower predictions for the city’s growth and warn of brain drain. “Hong Kong is facing an exodus of educated workers on a scale not seen since the early 1990s,” said a Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce report. 

Other experts believe that Hong Kong can maintain its commercial status despite its democratic decline. In recent years, Beijing has moved to connect Hong Kong more to the mainland, creating the Greater Bay Area project, an ambitious plan to integrate Hong Kong and cities in neighboring Guangdong Province into a more cohesive economic region. Many firms and investors are betting that this increased connectivity will boost the amount of wealth flowing from the mainland into Hong Kong.

“This dramatic transformation will not be the end of Hong Kong as a global financial hub, as it has already begun to boost economic integration with mainland China. But it is surely the death of the democratic hopes of most of its 7.5 million people,” CFR’s Jerome A. Cohen writes.

Recommended Resources

On The President’s Inbox podcast, the University of Notre Dame’s Victoria Tin-bor Hui explains the national security law imposed on Hong Kong.

During this 2021 roundtable, CFR’s Jerome A. Cohen, Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan, and journalist Stephen Vines discuss Hong Kong’s future.

For Foreign Affairs, the Asia Group’s Kurt Tong examines Washington’s struggle to punish Beijing for the crackdown on Hong Kong. 

The podcast Hong Kong Silenced tells the story of how life in Hong Kong was turned upside down in the year after the national security law was imposed.

The Congressional Research Service outlines the national security law for Hong Kong [PDF], Hong Kong’s preferential trade status [PDF], and the history of U.S.-Hong Kong relations [PDF].

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation goes inside the massive protests in 2019.

Eleanor Albert contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the map.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].

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