Hong Kong and Singapore share enormous similarities, but also striking differences. Both have been historical shipping hubs. Both are islands (although Hong Kong includes a peninsula). Both were British colonies for hundreds of years. Today both are majority Chinese (Singapore, 75%; Hong Kong, 95%). Both have developed their economies from heavy manufacturing in the past to high-tech industry, logistics, and finance in the present. Both have about 6 million people.

Yet, Singapore went from British colony to independent country. Hong Kong became a “Special Administrative Region” of China, the first of it’s kind. Under the doctrine of “One Country, Two Systems,” the Chinese government in Beijing agreed to leave Hong Kong’s freedoms untouched for 50 years after the handover of power in 1997. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, would say it simply became the colony of a different superpower. Some nationalist Hong Kongers celebrated a return to the “motherland.” Most in the territory consider themselves both Chinese and Hong Kongese. So it’s a difficult mish mash of nationalism.

Hong Kong would likely fall into the category of “liberal autocracy.” The British legal system, largely preserved over the past 12 years, remains independent of influence from Beijing. The press is significantly freer than Singapore’s, with many newspapers taking editorial stances either for or against the central government. No matter how scathing the arguments against the Communist Party of China, these reporters are not threatened or imprisoned. This is not to say Beijing is completely absent from participation in the presses; it’s a poorly kept secret that pro-Beijing papers receive lavish amounts of money in advertising from huge state-owned companies (notably banks). Nevertheless, anti-China papers still exist and are successful across the territory.

Politically though, Hong Kongers are still far from free. There are real multiparty elections in Hong Kong, with pro-China parties competing against anti-China ones. A few of these elections are for pretty important positions, but none of them are truly significant. Three reasons explain the insignificance.

First, a large part of the problem lies in half the legislature (LEGCO) being elected from so-called “functional constituencies.” Instead of direct election, people from a specific constituency (based on profession) are allowed to nominate and vote for their chosen legislator. Almost all of these constituencies (“tourism,” “finance,” “construction”) are going to be pro-China because of the enormous market and low cost labor it provides. Indeed, the 2008 elections allotted 24 of the 30 constituency seats to pro-Beijing parties. The other 30 council members are elected on the basis of geography, but it’s an uphill battle when nearly half legislature is already against you by default. The central government has promised universal suffrage and the elimination of functional constituencies in 2017, but it smells fishy. We’ll have to wait and see.

Second, the level of authority legislators have in dictating policy is actually quite small. While Hong Kong can control its own fiscal policy and taxation, there is no political movement (or power structure) to accommodate big issues like sovereignty. Even the Chief Executive has no power over Hong Kong’s foreign or defense policy; security is provided by troops from the mainland, totally loyal to the Beijing regime. Contrast this with Singapore, where the people have the somewhat restricted right to choose their own foreign policy by electing a prime minister. Hence, the “autocratic” nature of Hong Kong’s government.

Finally, top officials have strong, non-coercive incentives to adopt a pro-China policy. Especially loyal officials might be rewarded with honorary posts in the national government, or with preferred funding for their pet business projects. As much free expression as Hong Kong law permits, there is still considerable pressure on officials to steer public opinion in a certain way. One recent example stands out in particular. On June 4, 2009, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an estimated 100,000 assembled in Hong Kong to hold a demonstration and candlelight vigil for those who died during the notorious protests. The vigil was peaceful and attendees were free to come and go as they please. Still, a few of the original protest leaders from 1989 attempted to attend and were denied visas, with the city government claiming that this would unnecessarily antagonize the central authorities. No one knows how much Beijing-pandering is enough, so (to the central government’s delight) Hong Kong tends to err on the conservative side.

Hong Kong has a relatively weak legislature with true, but limited democracy. This weakness, coupled by fact that Beijing controls the most important levels of policy makes it “autocratic.” It is “liberal” because it is governed by an impartial judiciary and a solid constitution that allows freedoms of speech, press, and religion. Many fear that Beijing’s plans for universal suffrage in 2017 might only be a sweetener to make a new round of censorship and sedition laws more palatable. In that case, one cancels out the other. It’s difficult to vote for a candidate who gives an “illegal” speech and is thereby disqualified from an election.