Edited by Mike Aquino.
Considering its prominence in the news headlines recently, it’s a fair question to ask: what country is Hong Kong actually in—in China, or not?
The answer isn't quite as simple as you might imagine—or as any commentators might like!
Hong Kong exists as a Special Administrative Region controlled by The People's Republic of China and enjoys its own limited autonomy as defined by the Basic Law. The principle of “one country, two systems” allows for the coexistence of socialism and capitalism under “one country,” which is mainland China.
Hong Kong retains its own money, passport and immigration channels, and legal system, but the chain of command leads straight back to Beijing.
Hong Kong’s Distinct Institutions
Hong Kong was never an independent country. Until 1997, and the Hong Kong handover, Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom. It was ruled by a governor appointed by Parliament in London and answerable to the Queen.
Post-handover, the colony of Hong Kong became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) and for official purposes is a part of China. But, for all intents and purposes, it is allowed to operate as an independent country. Below are just some of the ways Hong Kong behaves like an independent country.
Distinct government infrastructure. Hong Kong’s Basic Law, as agreed between China and Britain, means Hong Kong will retain its own currency (the Hong Kong dollar), legal system, and parliamentary system for fifty years—a term that ends in 2047.
Limited self-government. Hong Kong’s parliament was engineered as a compromise between democrats and Beijing partisans. It’s partially elected by popular vote, and partially by Beijing-approved caucuses of prominent nominees from business and policy bodies.
The head of government is the Hong Kong Chief Executive, who is selected from a short list, then appointed by Beijing.
Separate legal system. Hong Kong's legal system is completely distinct from Beijing. It remains based on British common law and is considered free and impartial. Mainland Chinese authorities have no right to arrest people in Hong Kong. Like other countries, they must apply for an international arrest warrant. (An attempt to tweak this—the doomed extradition law—sparked the protests that continue to this day.)
Border crossing. Immigration and passport control is also separate from China. Hong Kongers have their own separate passports, the HKSAR passport.The China-Hong Kong border is treated as an international border by both sides.
Hong Kong tourists wishing to visit mainland China must apply for a visa if they don’t qualify for visa-free entry or a visa on arrival. Chinese nationals also require permits to visit Hong Kong.
The import and export of goods between Hong Kong and China are also restricted, although rules and regulations have been relaxed. Investment between both countries now flows relatively freely.
Beijing’s Long Reach
Beijing casts a long shadow over Hong Kong nonetheless. The buck stops, not at the Central Government Complex in Tamar, Hong Kong, but all the way in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
Military: Hong Kong does not have its own standing army; Beijing is responsible for the area’s military defense.
A People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison consisting of some 5,000 soldiers, officers and support staff now occupy former British Army buildings in Hong Kong, including the Central Barracks in Admiralty; the Stonecutters Island Naval Base; and the Shek Kong Airfield.
The present situation in Hong Kong has made certain quarters nervous about the PLA’s presence in Hong Kong. Article 14 of the Garrison Law allows the local government to request the garrison to intervene “in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief.” The government has emphasized its use only at the last resort, and has not invoked it yet.
Diplomacy: Hong Kong may not maintain separate diplomatic relations with foreign countries. China represents Hong Kong in the UN, and in embassies around the world.
Beijing allows the SAR to participate as an “associate member” in certain intergovernmental bodies like the Asian Development Bank and the World Health Organization; and in certain trade-related agreements as “Hong Kong, China”.
Hong Kong’s Distinct Identity
The impasse between vigorous pro-democracy protesters and unmoving pro-Beijing partisans has created the current tension between Hong Kong and Beijing.
This divide stems from the fact that, culturally, Hong Kong is its own thing, proudly distinct from mainland China. While most Hong Kongers consider themselves Chinese, they do not consider themselves a part of China. They even have their own Olympic team, anthem, and flag.
The Hong Kong economy is characterized by low tax rates, free trade, and less government interference. The mainland Chinese stock markets are more conservative and restrictive.
Culturally, Hong Kong is also somewhat distinct from China. While the two share a clear cultural affinity, fifty years of communist rule in the mainland and British and international influence in Hong Kong has seen them diverge.
Surprisingly, Hong Kong remains a bastion of Chinese tradition. Flamboyant festivals, Buddhist rituals and martial art groups long banned by Mao flourished in Hong Kong.
Thus we’re back to the original question: What country is Hong Kong actually in? Officially, the answer to this question is China. However, unofficially Hong Kong is by most practical measures something different entirely.