The six-monthly report of the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary on Hong Kong has recently been presented to the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Select Committee in London. The committee has, in response to the report, raised concerns under several headings about how well the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is faring over 21 years after China resumed the exercise of sovereignty. The response speaks about the Joint Declaration, Hong Kong’s autonomy and the rule of law in Hong Kong.
A good way to get a grounded feel for the current state of the rule of law in Hong Kong is to look at reliable, international assessments. The US-based, World Justice Project (WJP) listed the HKSAR at 16th out of 126 jurisdictions for Rule of Law compliance in 2019. The UK was ranked 12th, France was ranked 17th and the US was ranked 20th. Transparency International (TI) ranked Hong Kong 14th out of 180 jurisdictions in the Corruption Perception Index, 2018. The UK was ranked 11th, France was ranked 21st and the US was ranked 22nd. More than 21 years after its return to China, these HKSAR rankings keep close company with rich, first-world democracies or are ahead of them.
The UK parliamentary response stresses that the rule of law in Hong Kong is beset by darkening clouds (from the North) which challenge its fundamental well-being — so that is that. How could it be otherwise, given that this valuable legacy of the British Hong Kong era has been placed within Beijing’s ultimate care? This standpoint frames the response.
The first thing to note, however, is that the British rule of law legacy is both very good and especially sturdy. The British were not only able to draw on the best of British governance principles in Hong Kong: They were also able to fund an exceptionally good rule of law system. So, how can it be that such a robust system is now portrayed as being so vulnerable? Such an assessment may make some sense based on a premise that political ill will is what Beijing radiates, above all. It does not, however, make sense if a more balanced evaluation is applied.
That rule of law system remains robustly healthy in the HKSAR. I expect, however, that we will see further reports from this committee much like this latest one, inconvenient evidence, notwithstanding
Apart from the WJR and TI figures quoted above, another key measure of the effectiveness of the rule of law for ordinary citizens is freedom from fear in their day to day lives. This is the basic freedom to live your life peacefully within a given jurisdiction without threat to life, limb or property across all public (and private) spaces. Once again, Hong Kong does remarkably well by this measure. Homicide rates provide one useful indicator of the general threat to freedom from fear. According to one comprehensive review, Hong Kong has a murder rate which places it in the lowest 5 percent worldwide, ranked at 209 within 217 jurisdictions with a rate of 0.4 per 100,000 persons. The murder rate in the UK is 2.5 times that in the HKSAR. In Australia it is about three times that in Hong Kong while New Zealand has a rate about double the rate in Hong Kong and the US has a murder rate over 11 times that in Hong Kong.
One leading international Safe City index is produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The EIU safety-perspective is that of international professionals (bankers, lawyers and the like) rather than the perspective of ordinary local residents. Hong Kong still rates very well on the EIU index, within the top 10 (at number 9). Certain similar surveys are still more positive. Hong Kong was recently rated as the safest travel jurisdiction worldwide (ahead of Singapore and Japan) according to a US assessment, one where, a “woman or a man can walk any street at any time of day or night without fear”. The US State Department also had Hong Kong listed as one of the world’s safest cities. In the Gallup 2018 Global Law and Order report, which puts its questions about city safety to local residents, Hong Kong was ranked 6th out of 142 countries and regions. The UK was ranked 21st.
Next, let us consider homelessness — one way to measure basic freedom from want. Hong Kong faces immense challenges meeting the reasonable housing aspirations of all of its 7.5 million residents. The official Hong Kong homelessness rate was under 1,200 in 2018. Academic studies, looking at street-sleepers, say that the actual rate is at least 2,000. Homelessness estimates for New Zealand range from an official government figure of 4,000 to an academic study figure of 41,000 in a population of almost 4.8 million. Using the minimum comparative figure, New Zealand has a homelessness rate which is more than three times, per capita, that of the HKSAR. Using the highest New Zealand and Hong Kong estimates, the New Zealand rate is over 32 times higher. In Australia, the rate is almost 18 times higher. A significant part of the explanation here is the comparative availability of public rental housing (PRH). Just looking at the more than 800,000 PRH flats in Hong Kong (not including the 460,000 Home Ownership Scheme flats sold to date), the HKSAR provides almost nine times more PRH accommodation on a per capita basis than New Zealand and almost seven times more than Australia. In both New Zealand and Australia, rents for PRH are typically 25 percent (or more) of total income compared to the 10-15 percent in Hong Kong.
The puzzle noted above can be resolved. The British rule of law legacy in Hong Kong is not a fragile flower easily blown this way and that and bent out of shape. This legacy was first rate for the reasons briefly noted above. That rule of law system remains robustly healthy in the HKSAR. I expect, however, that we will see further reports from this committee much like this latest one, inconvenient evidence, notwithstanding.
The author is a visiting law professor at the University of Hong Kong. He has written numerous books and articles focused on public law (including the rule of law), media law and tax law.
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