In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong

  • Introduction
  • Colonial Regime and Governance
  • Political Transition: From Joint Declaration to 1997
  • “One Country, Two Systems” and China–Hong Kong Relations
  • The Struggle over Democratization
  • State, Business, Society Relations
  • Hong Kong as a Hybrid Regime
  • Post-1997 Politics: Crisis and Governance
  • Civil Society and Social Movements
  • Identity Politics and “Localism”

Political Science Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong
Ngok Ma
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0275


The Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong (HKSAR) was established in 1997 when China recovered sovereignty over Hong Kong following the terms set out in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Chinese government promised to adopt “One Country, Two Systems,” keeping the capitalist system and lifestyle of Hong Kong “fifty years unchanged.” Hong Kong was promised a high level of autonomy, with civil liberties, rule of law, and judicial independence guaranteed in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution. With universal suffrage elections promised in the Basic Law but never delivered, the struggle over democratization has been the top item on the political agenda for decades. The issue of democratization defines the major political cleavage, with the democrats seeing a democratic government as key to defending Hong Kong’s autonomy, rule of law, and civil rights. The study of politics in the HKSAR mostly centers around several themes: the struggle over democratization, China–Hong Kong relations, the perennial governing crisis of the HKSAR government, and state-business and state-society relations. Knowledge of colonial politics and governance and the social and political changes since the transition period (1984–1997) is vital for understanding present-day Hong Kong politics. The gist of the promise of “One Country, Two Systems” was a continuation of the status quo beyond 1997. The political formula and governing philosophy under the colonial regime were seen as major reasons for the “stability and prosperity” of Hong Kong. The conventional wisdom was that Hong Kong’s success was due to a minimalist state. In-depth studies of colonial politics revealed a more complicated state-business and state-society relationship. The roles of state and political configurations have also undergone a lot of changes since the 1980s. Yet business dominance/hegemony and state-business alliance remain common conceptual tools to understand the post-1997 politics of Hong Kong. Recent studies on Hong Kong politics tend to cast Hong Kong in the light of “hybrid regimes.” With more control and intervention from China, the focus is on to what extent the autonomy and freedom of Hong Kong can be maintained, and how Hong Kong people resist a democratic recession or fight for reform. The rise of new social movements, massive mobilizations, the birth of a new political identity, and value changes in recent years all contributed to the historic 2014 Umbrella Movement. The 2014 Movement brought about a new stage of self-determination currents and more intervention from China.

Colonial Regime and Governance

The study of colonial rule and the nature of colonial governance has special relevance not only in the historical sense. The gist of the “One Country, Two Systems” guaranteed by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration was a maintenance of the status quo (that is, the status quo as of the early 1980s) after 1997. The governance pattern and political configuration showed a lot of continuity after 1997. Recent studies on Hong Kong showed a strong revival of interest in colonial history and governance strategies, partly due to the gradual opening of historical archives in London and Hong Kong. Colonialism in Hong Kong was a story of survival and balance between East and West, between contesting empires and rival ideologies during the Cold War. Carroll 2007 and Law 2009 shared the “Edge of Empires” perspective to understand the colonial role and emphasized the role of Chinese collaborators in helping to build and maintain the colony. Chan 1997 similarly showed how big power politics and historical events shaped the course of Hong Kong history. Early studies on colonial politics centered on explaining the “absence of politics” in Hong Kong. From the perspectives of modernization theory, the Hong Kong puzzle was how the non-democratic regime maintained political stability amidst rapid industrialization, urbanization, and development, without even offering adequate welfare services. Lau 1984 explained the stability by a passive political culture and refugee mentality that brought low participation. King 1975 saw colonial stability as rooted in a successful co-optation strategy by the colonial regime pacifying the Chinese society. These two narratives had profound impact for the design of political and governing strategy and academic understanding of Hong Kong politics after 1997. Academic studies at a later stage showed that the colonial regime maintained stability and legitimacy by a careful management of the state-elite relationship, especially with the business elites. Ngo 1999 showed that the colonial state effectively co-opted the Chinese elites and selectively intervened into society and economy to maintain effective governance. (See also the section on State, Business, Society Relations.) Castells, et al. 1990 and Schiffer 1991 showed the extent of colonial economic intervention, rebutting the mainstream narrative of a “noninterventionist state,” and the “boundary consciousness” thesis of Lau 1984.

  • Carroll, John. Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007.

    This book argues that colonialism in Hong Kong was made possible with the active help of Chinese elites (collaborators). Going between China and Britain, the Chinese elite and their associations played a major role in constituting British colonialism, constructing Chinese nationalism and identity in Hong Kong, and maintaining the stability and operation of the British colony.

  • Castells, Manuel, Lee Goh, and Reginald Kwok. The Shek Kip Mei Syndrome: Economic Development and Public Housing in Hong Kong and Singapore. London: Pion, 1990.

    This book on the public housing policy in Hong Kong was a classic on housing policy and the role of the colonial state in development. By resettling and moving urban dwellers into multistory public housing, the state freed up land for industrial development. By subsidizing the social wage in the form of housing rents, the colonial state built a safety net that enhanced stability and assisted industrial development.

  • Chan, Ming, ed. Precarious Balance: Hong Kong between China and Britain, 1842–1992. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1997.

    This edited volume narrated Hong Kong’s history from the Opium War to the last years of colonialism. It saw Hong Kong as situated in a historical triangle with Britain and China, always caught in the crossfire of nationalism, ideological conflicts, and diplomacy between the great powers.

  • King, Ambrose. “Administrative Absorption of Politics in Hong Kong: Emphasis on the Grassroots Level.” Asian Survey 15.5 (1975): 422–439.

    This article explained colonial stability by the regime’s co-optation strategy. The colonial regime co-opted the most influential Chinese elites by bestowing colonial honors and appointment into different levels of councils and advisory committees. The co-opted elites helped to reflect opinion from Chinese society and explain and defend government policy. This “administrative absorption” model was extended to the grassroots level after the 1967 riots with the City District Officer scheme.

  • Lam, Wai-man. Understanding the Political Culture of Hong Kong: The Paradox of Political Activism and Depoliticization. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2004.

    This book is a frontal attack on the “political apathy” thesis that was dominant in early Hong Kong studies. By studying social and political movements in the postwar years, it showed that these movements had significant scope and intensity, and postwar Hong Kong Chinese showed considerable political activism.

  • Lau, Siu-kai. Society and Politics in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1984.

    This influential work adopts a cultural explanation for colonial stability. It argues that the Hong Kong Chinese were marked by a “refugee mentality” and “utilitarianistic familism,” meaning that they emphasized family values and material needs, with few long-term plans and low expectations for the colonial government. This brought a low level of political participation, with the colonial state and the Chinese society having a tacit “boundary consciousness” of mutual nonintervention.

  • Law, Wing-sang. Collaborative Colonial Power: The Making of the Hong Kong Chinese. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

    This historical cultural analysis showed that British colonialism was created with active help from Chinese collaborators in Hong Kong. The colonial period saw the constant creation and re-creation of cultural and identity institutions, which reconstructed Chinese-ness but still emphasized the colonial differences. This process evolved in different forms over the years, even beyond 1997 as Hong Kong went through a process of recolonization.

  • Miners, Norman. The Government and Politics of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    This book, with various updated versions, was a most comprehensive analysis of the colonial institutions and governance. The earlier versions had quite detailed analysis of the background, origins, and nature of the colonial institutions. Later versions incorporated the institutional and political changes since the 1980s.

  • Ngo, Tak-wing, ed. Hong Kong’s History: State and Society under Colonial Rule. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

    This edited volume provides a multifaceted analysis of the state-elite relationship in the colonial era, significant in debunking the myth of a “noninterventionist state.” It showed that the colonial state was faced with multiple demands from the business community. It carefully managed relations with the business class and other elites, and chose to adopt a low-intervention strategy.

  • Schiffer, Jonathan. “State Policy and Economic Growth: A Note on the Hong Kong Model.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 15.2 (1991): 180–196.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2427.1991.tb00629.x

    This article showed that the colonial state intervened into the economy by subsidizing and controlling the supply of foodstuffs. The subsidy of social wages, particularly in housing rents and public hospital service, was a key strategy that kept labor costs low and helped the export-oriented industries in the postwar economic takeoff.

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