What Is Hong Kong SAR, China? Importance in Finance

What Is the Hong Kong SAR?

Hong Kong is the premier financial and business center in China and a regional financial leader. Hong Kong is one of China's special administrative regions (SARs). An SAR is a relatively autonomous regions within the People's Republic of China that maintain separate legal, administrative, and judicial systems from the rest of the country.

Key Takeaways

  • Hong Kong is an Asian financial hub once colonized by the British and now a semi-autonomous part of China.
  • Special Administrative Regions (SARs) exist as relatively autonomous portions of a country that maintain some degree of political and economic independence.
  • Because of their history of independence and colonization, SARs such as Hong Kong may find themselves in conflict with the political authority of China.

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Breaking Down Hong Kong SAR, China

Hong Kong is a special administrative region (SAR) that exists as part of the People’s Republic of China under the “One Country, Two Systems” doctrine, negotiated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, negotiated and signed in 1984, but taking effect in 1997. The "One Country, Two Systems" doctrine stipulated that the People's Republic of China's socialist system would not be practiced in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong would maintain its political and economic quasi-independence for 50 years after the transfer of sovereignty, until 2047.

What does that mean? Since July 1, 1997, when the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, Hong Kong has maintained a separate political and economic system from China—democratic(ish), and capitalist—and a separate currency (the Hong Kong Dollar, HKD$). Hong Kong retains independent executive, legislative and judiciary powers, in all matters other than military defense and foreign affairs. English and Chinese are the two official languages.

Hong Kong's Economy

Hong Kong has been ranked as the world's freest economy in the Heritage's Index of Economic Freedom since the index's inception in 1995. In 1990, Milton Friedman wrote that it was perhaps the best example of a free market economy. The service economy in Hong Kong is characterized primarily by low taxation, near free port trade, and a well established international financial market. Service economy, here, meaning an economy that is not industrial, or manufacturing based, but is instead based in financial services, health, and human services, hospitality, information technology, etc.

And using its political and economic autonomy, Hong Kong has positioned itself as the place where international and Chinese businesses find common ground. It is also considered the principal financial center in China. As a result, more than 1,300 companies from all over the world are headquartered in Hong Kong.

This democratic government and the free market has been successful, to some extent. It's the world's 33rd largest economy with a population smaller than the city of Tokyo, at 7.34 million. Hong Kong has an annual GDP of $320.9 billion, giving it the world's 17th highest GDP per capita, at $43,681.

Hong Kong and China's Tension

Historically, China has had considerable incentive to refrain from interfering in Hong Kong's political and economic systems. At the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong, with a population of 6.5 million at the time, had an economy one fifth the size of the Chinese economy, with its population of 1 billion.

This is no longer the case. Over the past 20 years, Hong Kong's economy has stagnated, changing very little in makeup, with GDP growth slowing, and inequality rising significantly. In that same time, China has become an economic superpower. Hong Kong now accounts for just 3% of Chinese GDP. 

Some think that the greatest risk to Hong Kong's autonomy is political and business elites in the region ceding it to the Liaison Office, to remove political tensions from the region, and return Hong Kong to an economic city. This may prove a poor decision though, as a marriage of business and government has proven counterproductive in Hong Kong, leading to an increase conflicts of interest and cronyism, not to mention a non-responsive government, that refuses to broaden its tax base, or lower property taxes, and has excluded political parties from democratic participation. All of this has led to a public perception of the Hong Kong SAR government as not as legitimate as it once was.

Given these recent trends, the Liaison Office, the People's Republic of China representative in Hong Kong, has been taking steps to meaningfully increase its influence and clout in the region, interfering in both domestic affairs and elections. For example, the Liaison Office provides loans, bought Hong Kong's largest publishing house (removing titles critical of the Communist Party), and lobbied for Hong Kong's new chief executive, Carrie Lam. 

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