Hong Kong - Politics, government, and taxation

The political parties of Hong Kong are at the initial stage of their development and do not represent a long tradition of political activities. Political parties were illegal until 1990. Being a British colony directly ruled by a British-appointed governor, the territory did not need active political parties. They seemed to be irrelevant to a political system whose executive branch, the Executive Council (Exco), and the legislative branch, the Legislative Council (Legco), were simply advisory bodies. The latter was run by appointed or selected businesspeople and professionals and not by elected politicians.

As part of the preparation for the hand-over of Hong Kong to China, efforts to democratize the Hong Kong political system led to the introduction of an elected Legco and the gradual elimination of legislative seats occupied by the British governor's appointees. These developments justified the creation of political parties. Yet, the Basic Law of Hong Kong provides for an election process, which undermines the status of the Legco as a truly democratic and representative body. Out of its 60 members, only 20 members are directly elected by popular votes. Functional constituencies (created by professional, business, and labor groups) elect 30 members, and an electoral committee (formed mainly by functional constituencies' chosen delegates) elect the remaining 10 members. Consequently, big business dominates Legco, which reflects the pre-eminence of business-oriented groups and the irrelevance of political parties in the running of Hong Kong and overseeing its economy.

In such a situation, the emerging political parties, which suffer from internal weaknesses, are practically out of the decision-making process and are therefore unable to have a major impact on the economy. Major politicians, including Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, do not have party affiliations and are prominent business figures.

The Hong Kong political parties are divided into 3 major groups: pro-democracy, pro-business, and pro-China. None of these groups advocate any economic policy to undermine the free-enterprise nature of the economy or the status of the territory as a center for free trade. The merger of 2 pro-democracy groups (the United Democrats of Hong Kong and the Meeting Point) formed the Democratic Party of Hong Kong in 1994, the largest pro-democracy party. It suffers from infighting on various issues, including economic issues. Pro-business parties include the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation, the Frontier Party, the Citizens Party, and the Liberal Party. All these parties tend to advocate close ties with China and cooperate with pro-China groups. The major pro-China groups include the DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong). Not surprisingly, it also advocates close economic ties with China. The 3 largest parties in Legco are the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, the Liberal Party, and the DAB.

The Hong Kong government has a very limited role in economic affairs. This is in keeping with the proclaimed status of Hong Kong as a haven for unfettered free enterprise and free trade, in which the task of creating a viable economy is granted to the private sector . The intervention of the government in the economy is limited only to providing the essential services for its normal functioning and for creating an environment conducive to its growth. Therefore, government must ensure the existence of the required infrastructure for the daily life of the population and the economy—for instance, education, health care, communications, and telecommunications— with or without the involvement of the private sector. It must also ensure the absence of barriers to free economic activities. Such barriers include laws and regulations which complicate, impede, or prohibit economic activities such as difficult and lengthy processes for registration of economic establishments, various licenses for their activities, restrictions on the transfer of funds from and to Hong Kong, and the imposition of tariffs and restrictive export/import regulations.

To create a suitable environment for economic growth, the Hong Kong government imposes very few laws and regulations on economic activities. It continues the British policy of "positive non-intervention," meaning it levies low taxes to encourage economic activities and limits government expenditures as well as its role in providing essential services (e.g. education, health care, and housing). Apart from these functions, the government's role in the economy is limited to the extent justified for the well-being of the economy. In this regard, its first and foremost duty is to ensure the stability of the Hong Kong dollar, which demands the stability of the economy. To that end, in August 1998 it purchased US$15.3 billion worth of stocks to prevent the fall of the Hong Kong stock market and put it back in a healthy position. That move also prevented huge losses which could have seriously damaged the economy and weakened its currency.

Hong Kong's government gives a free hand to the private sector in practically all economic affairs pertaining to the 3 main economic sectors (agriculture, industry, and services), including investment, production, trade, and transfer of capital. For example, there is no need for a business to acquire a license in Hong Kong. Regardless of the nature of their activities, the only requirement for setting up businesses is to register them as companies; the registration process is not complicated. Nor is there any restriction on investments or on financial transactions regardless of size, including the transfer of funds from and to Hong Kong or the repatriation of profits and investments. Finally, tariffs do not exist in Hong Kong.

The private sector has been the main engine of growth before and after 1997. This sector also includes foreign businesses, which are treated practically like local ones. The only major restriction on foreign investors checks their involvement in television broadcasting concerns. These investors can buy up to 10 percent of the concerns' shares individually and cannot own more than 49 percent of the voting shares as a group. While there is no systematic restriction on the operation of foreign investors in Hong Kong, there is not any specific program to attract them either. The Hong Kong government believes that its territory's geographical location, its good infrastructure, its low taxes and absence of tariffs, and its very limited and simple business regulations make investment in Hong Kong attractive enough for local and foreign entrepreneurs.

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