Special administrative regions of China are effectively separate countries with their own local administrations. They remain governed by Beijing on matters of foreign affairs and national defense. China currently has two special administrative zones – also known as SAR, Hong Kong and Macau, and Beijing has suggested that if Taiwan returned to Chinese rule, then it too would be made a special administrative region.
The idea has also been floated by commentators for other restless Chinese regions, such as Tibet.
Special Administrative Regions were designed in response to the challenge of getting Macau and Hong Kong, both former colonies, back under Chinese rule. Both of these colonies had enjoyed a high level of autonomy under colonial rule and their capitalist economies, rule of law and way of life meant many residents, especially in Hong Kong, were nervous about the communist rule.
Special Administrative rule was hammered out between the Chinese and British governments in the run-up to the Hong Kong Handover . With thousands of Hong Kongers leaving the city due to concern over the Chinese takeover, not least of all in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square massacre, the government’s drew up a design for governance designed to allay the city’s fears.
How special administrative regions work is defined in the document that continues to govern the running of Hong Kong, the Basic Law.
Some of the key points contained in the law include; the capitalist system in the HKSAR shall remain unchanged for 50 years, the freedom of persons in Hong Kong will remain inviolable and that Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of conscience and religious belief and freedom of protest.
Laws previously in force shall be maintained and the independent Hong Kong judiciary will have the power of adjudication.
You can find out more in our article on the basic law.
Does the Basic Law Work?
Ask anyone in Hong Kong and they will each give you a different answer. The basic law has worked – mostly. Hong Kong retains its rule of law, freedom of speech and press and capitalist way of life but there have been skirmishes with Beijing. Attempts to introduce ‘anti-subversion’ laws were met with ferocious protest in Hong Kong and dumped while soft infringement into the freedom of the press, where advertising is pulled in response to negative stories about China, is a matter of fact. Hong Kong continues to strive for more freedom and Beijing craves more control – who will win this tug of war remains to be seen.
Practicalities of the Basic Law
The practicalities of the basic law mean that Hong Kong and China and Macau and China have a full international border. Chinese residents require a visa to live, work and even visit either SAR with the numbers of visitors allowed seriously restricted. They also have fully independent judiciaries so requests for arrest or extradition are carried out as a matter of international, not internal law.
Hong Kong and Macau do use Chinese embassies for foreign affairs although they are often independent members of trade, sport, and other international bodies.
Are Tibet or Taiwan SARs?
No. Tibet is administered as a province of China. Unlike the residents of Macau and Hong Kong, most Tibetans do not want Chinese rule and have no ethnic ties to China. Taiwan is currently an independent country. It has been muted by China that if Taiwan were to return to their control then it would be administered as an SAR modeled on Hong Kong. Taiwan has not expressed any appetite to return to Chinese rule, as an SAR or otherwise.