Hong Kong’s Reign as World’s Freest Economy at Risk, Group Warns

© Bloomberg. Residential and commercial buildings are seen from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, China, on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Hong Kong stocks fluctuated on Sept. 12 as automakers extended gains driven by China’s plan to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles, while banks and property companies weighed on the benchmark index. Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg


(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong’s long reign as the world’s freest economy is at risk due to China’s efforts to quell dissent, the Fraser Institute said, undercutting government arguments that the crackdown was improving the business climate.

The Vancouver-based research institution warned in its 2020 Economic Freedom of the World report that the sweeping national security law enacted in June and other measures would hurt Hong Kong’s No. 1 ranking in future surveys. The former British colony continued its 24-year run atop the latest report, which was based on data from 2018, ahead of Singapore and New Zealand.

“Hong Kong’s rating in this report is unaffected by the 2019 proposal to transfer certain legal cases to the mainland and the protest and sometimes brutal suppression that followed,” the right-leaning think tank said. “However, it will be surprising if the apparent increase in the insecurity of property rights and the weakening of the rule of law caused by the interventions of the Chinese government in 2019 and 2020 do not result in lower scores.”

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has cited the city’s continued high rankings in the Fraser report and similar surveys to counter claims that efforts to crackdown on political unrest were jeopardizing its status as a global financial center. The security law imposed by China gave the government vast new authority to prosecute subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers, including the ability to transfer cases to mainland courts.

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The government dismissed the report’s assertions, saying it remained determined and committed to upholding the rule of law. “It is with regret that Fraser Institute preempts lower future scores in this area with biased comments and unfair speculations based on selective ungrounded views,” the government said in a statement Friday.

The decision to impose the security law without a public hearing or vote was arguably the most dramatic shock to Hong Kong’s political system since it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The government has already used the law to outlaw protest slogans and arrest more than 20 activists, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

The legislation has prompted the U.S. to roll back special trading privileges granted to Hong Kong while technology companies have accelerated efforts to move sensitive data out of the city. On Thursday, Hong Kong police arrested 15 people on suspicion of manipulating the stock price of Lai’s Next Digital Ltd. during a campaign to support the company after his arrest last month.

Hong Kong slipped to second place in the Heritage Foundation’s 2020 Index of Economic Freedom, due to last year’s political turmoil. The city also tumbled seven spots to 80th place in the Reporters Without Borders’ latest 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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