Special Administrative Region (SAR)

What Is a Special Administrative Region (SAR)?

A Special Administrative Regions (SAR) is an area that falls under the general auspices of one country but which has maintained a separate political and economic system. The term is most often associated with Chinese autonomous regions.

Two important SARs are Hong Kong and Macau (also spelled Macao), a pair of 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

  • Special Administrative Regions (SARs) exist as relatively autonomous portions of a country that maintain some degree of political and economic independence.
  • China has two important SARs, Hong Kong and Macau.
  • 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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Special Administrative Region

Understanding Special Administrative Regions (SARs)

China's Special Administrative Regions (SARs) enjoy a high degree of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" concept developed by Deng Xiaoping. There are currently two SARs, both located in the Pearl River Delta in the south of the country: Hong Kong, a former British dependency that was turned over to China in 1997; and Macau, a former Portuguese dependency that was turned over in 1999.

Due to their history as Western colonies, the SARs had fundamentally different experiences from the rest of China during the 20th century. Hong Kong and Macau were capitalist enclaves with Western-style judicial systems and colonial administrators serving as executives; the People's Republic was an inward-looking communist state built on a revolutionary, one-party framework. While Deng's reforms opened the country up to the outside world and initiated a transition to a market-based capitalist economy, the Chinese Communist Party retains a monopoly on political power.

According to agreements struck with Britain and Portugal in the 1980s, Hong Kong and Macau will retain their separate systems until 2047 and 2049, respectively. During these 50-year stints as autonomous regions, the SARs are governed by Basic Laws, constitutions unique to each region. These give Macau and Hong Kong considerable executive, legislative, and judicial freedom. Defense and diplomatic responsibilities remain with the central government.

Special Considerations

Beijing does constrain the freedom of the SARs, however. Hong Kong is only allowed to elect its leaders, called chief executives, from a pool of pre-approved candidates. Hong Kong has seen an upsurge in anti-Beijing, pro-democracy, and even (limited) pro-independence sentiment in recent years. The pro-democracy "umbrella protests" of 2014 blocked Hong Kong's downtown streets for weeks in 2014, and the central government has responded in ways that critics see as violating the SAR's autonomy, including the 2015 arrests of five booksellers critical of the government; at least one appears to have been arrested in Hong Kong itself and clandestinely transported to mainland China.

In March 2021, Beijing constrained the election process in Hong Kong further due to increased incidents of protest and civil disobedience. Not only were legislative seats added and further controlled, but elected officials must come from a group deemed to be "patriots" by officials in Beijing, causing more concern from pro-democracy protestors.

Example: Macau

Macau, like Hong Kong, is a special administrative region (SAR) of greater China that operates under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. Similar to Hong Kong, the One Country, Two Systems allows Macau broad but limited autonomy in most of its governing and economic activities. Its currency is called the Macanese pataca (MOP).

Macau thrives as a second gateway for international trade into mainland China, particularly for Portuguese-speaking countries, located on the country's south coast next to Hong Kong. The service sector, specifically the tourism and gaming industry, dominates Macau's economy contributing over 90% of GDP output. From a financial standpoint, a lot of investors also know Macau as a tax haven.

How Many Special Administrative Regions Are There in China?

China currently has two SARs: Macau and Hong Kong.

Why Is Hong Kong a SAR?

Hong Kong became autonomous after China lost the Opium Wars to Great Britain in the 1860s. It was returned to China in 1997 due to a treaty, at which point it was incorporated as a SAR.

Why Is Macau a SAR?

Macau was a colony of Portugal in some capacity or another since the 16th century. A military coup in 1974 led to Macau proclaiming autonomy and soon after became a SAR of China.

Article Sources
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  1. Government Portal of Macao. "'A Cherished Memory from 1999 - Archives Expedition in Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Return of Macao to the Motherland' Opens in Lisbon, Portugal."

  2. Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. "Foreword - 25th Anniversary."

  3. University of Macau. "Macau S.A.R."

  4. Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. "LCQ6: The Capitalist System and Way of Life in Hong Kong After 2047."

  5. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - China-Hong Kong."

  6. Human Rights Watch. "Hong Kong Imposes Sham Election."

  7. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China. "Patriots Governing Hong Kong Is Justified."

  8. CIA World Factbook. "Macau—Economy."

  9. Congressional Research Service. "Tax Havens: International Tax Avoidance and Evasion," Page 4.

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