“One Country, Two Systems” of Legal Research: Finding the Law of China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

By Roy L. Sturgeon and Sergio D. Stone

Roy L. Sturgeon is the Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Reference Librarian at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans, Louisiana. He earned his JD from Valparaiso University, MLS from St. John’s University, and LLM in Chinese law from Tsinghua University in Beijing. He worked previously as the Foreign and International Law Librarian at Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center’s Gould Law Library in Central Islip, New York. He served as 2013-15 Secretary/Treasurer of the American Association of Law Libraries’s (AALL) Foreign, Comparative and International Law-Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS) and 2010-11 Chair of FCIL-SIS’s Asian Law Interest Group. Sergio D. Stone is the Deputy Director of Stanford Law School’s Robert Crown Law Library in Stanford, California. He earned his MLIS from the University of Denver and JD from New York University. He worked previously as the Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Librarian at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s Westminster Law Library in Colorado. In addition, he served as the 2012-14 Co-Chair of the Chinese and American Forum on Legal Information and Law Libraries (CAFLL) and the 2011-12 Chair of AALL’s FCIL-SIS.

Published September 2018
(Previously updated in March 2011 and in July/August 2014)
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1. Background

“The traveller in China sees many marvels. From Harbin in the bitter north to Urumqi among the deserts of Xinjiang, from the frontiers of the [former] Soviet Union to the marches of India, the way is marked everywhere by spectacle and anomaly…. The most astonishing thing of all, though, lies at the southern edge of the Chinese land mass, just below the Tropic of Cancer, where the Zhu Jiang or Pearl River debouches through Guangdong Province into the South China Sea … a futuristic metropolis, like something from another age or another sensibility, stacked around a harbour jammed fantastically with ships – the busiest, the richest and the most truly extraordinary of all Chinese cities, identified in the new orthography as Xianggang.”
– Jan Morris, Hong Kong, pages 15 and 17.

1.1. History

Hong Kong (HK), or Xianggang in Mandarin Chinese, is a fascinating political creation. More than a city but less than a state, part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) but not really of the PRC. It has only been so for the last 21 years. Before then, it was a British Crown colony for 155 years. And before that, a remote and relatively unimportant part of the Chinese empire for over 2,000 years. For more on HK’s pre-colonial history, see New Peace County and “Thinking About HK’s Past.”

Geographically, HK consists of three main parts: HK Island, Kowloon Peninsula (north of HK Island), and the New Territories (between Kowloon Peninsula and Chinese megacity Shenzhen). A defeated China involuntarily leased HK Island “in perpetuity” to victorious Britain after the First Opium War (1839-42). This transfer of property (and sovereignty), codified by the Treaty of Nanking, marked the start of what Chinese today refer to as the “century of humiliation” by foreign powers through coerced, unequal treaties. Kowloon Peninsula was similarly leased to Britain in the Convention of Peking after the Second Opium War (1860). And in 1898 the Kowloon Extension Agreement resulted in a 99-year lease of the New Territories to Britain. For a legal history published that year, see History of the Laws and Courts of HK. Except during the Japanese occupation (1941-45), Britain remained in control of HK until the last decade of the 20th century. See this paper, book, and website to learn about recently rediscovered HK war crimes trials (1946-48) stemming from the Japanese occupation.

After World War II HK soon became one of the world’s most important and modern places. It formed part of the West’s Cold War-era “Bamboo Curtain” against Asian communism following the 1949 communist victory in mainland China’s civil war. In the 1960s it rose as a global manufacturing center for cheap textiles, plastic goods, and basic electronics. Then it emerged as an international financial center in the 1980s, eventually besting “mother” Britain in terms of economic prosperity and New York City in numbers of skyscrapers.

SinceJuly 1, 1997, HK’s seven million residents have been guinea pigs in a unique experiment: the first capitalist (quasi-) liberal society delivered over to an authoritarian (ostensibly) communist state. To get a feel for what HKers hoped and feared around the time of the “handover,” “reversion,” or “retrocession,” read Xu Xi’s The Unwalled City, watch Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express” and Wayne Wang’s “Chinese Box,” and listen to Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997. The driving force behind this watershed event was China’s then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. During a 1982 meeting in Beijing, he told then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher,

On the question of sovereignty, China has no room for manoeuvre. To be frank, the question is not open to discussion. The time is ripe for making it unequivocally clear that China will recover HK in 1997. That is to say, China will not only recover the New Territories but also HK Island and Kowloon. … If China failed to recover HK in 1997 … no Chinese leaders or government would be able to justify themselves for that failure before the Chinese people … It would mean that the present Chinese government was just like the government of the late Qing Dynasty …. [T]he people would no longer have reason to trust us, and any Chinese government would have no alternative but to step down and voluntarily leave the political stage.
Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume III (1982-1992), page 23.

Britain’s “Iron Lady” ultimately agreed and was grilled at a 1984 press conference in HK by then-journalist Emily Lau, who voiced the frustration of many HKers that they were being used as pawns in a high-stakes, East-versus-West, superpower chess game.

A consummate pragmatist, Deng proposed the one country, two systems principle to ease the resumption of Chinese sovereignty whereby HK—because of its colonial past—would become a special administrative region and exercise a high degree of autonomy for at least 50 years after reunification with China. This meant that HK could keep, among other things, its capitalist economic system and common law legal system (with slight changes). For more, see “The Concept of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and Its Application to HK” in Understanding China’s Legal System, pages 353-73.

How has this principle worked in practice so far? Early on there were controversies, most notably the Right of Abode case and Article 23 protests. For more, see HK’s Constitutional Debate, National Security and Fundamental Freedoms, and “July.” By the end of last decade things seemed to settle down, surprising some people. Cross-border relations, however, have dramatically worsened this decade due mainly to serious disagreements with China (the world’s largest and second-oldest one-party state [trailing North Korea by only a year]) over the pace and spirit of legally promised universal suffrage in HK, which (unlike China) has independent courts, rule of law, and civil liberties but lacks (like China) full and genuine democracy. For more, see Davis, Hui, Chan, Kaeding, and Jacobson. See also “Lessons in Dissent,” “Ten Years,” “Raise the Umbrellas,” and “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.”

1.2. Why This Brief Article?

To research HK law effectively, one must understand that while there is only one country (China) there are two legal systems (civil and common) involved. And of these two systems, the common law is most important. For more on how they coexist, see “Reconceptualising the Relationship between the Mainland Chinese Legal System and the HK Legal System.”

There are many excellent online research guides on mainland Chinese law, which largely follows the civil law system. Also, Wei Luo at Washington University in St. Louis wrote an indispensable reference book in 2005. Beijing-based American lawyer Paul Kossof wrote a similar book in 2014. But these resources rarely discuss HK at length, if at all. Two respected looseleaf reference works, Reynolds and Flores’ Foreign Law (3 volumes in 8 binders) and Redden’s Modern Legal Systems Cyclopedia (10 volumes plus index in 21 binders), cover HK. The print versions have not been updated since 2002 and 1993, respectively. The online version of Foreign Law (called Foreign Law Guide) is more current, but requires a subscription. There is not a more current online version of Modern Legal Systems Cyclopedia, but it is available electronically to subscribers of HeinOnline’s World Constitutions Illustrated library. A couple of superb books published in HK focus on HK legal research. They are, however, either dated, hard to find in libraries outside HK, or both (see 3.13 below). The University of HK Libraries maintains an excellent LibGuide to HK legal sources in its collection. To complement the above-mentioned research tools, we present version 4.0 of this brief guide (updated and revised since version 3.0 in 2014) primarily for legal researchers outside HK. It focuses mostly on English-language information and free—but reliable—websites. We hope it helps them to better find the law of China’s HK Special Administrative Region (SAR) and appreciate HK’s unique role bridging East and West.

2. Primary Law Sources

Primary law sources are the binding rules of law in a jurisdiction. Because HK has a common law legal system, its primary law sources include legislation (i.e., ordinances, regulations, etc.), and caselaw (i.e., judge-made law, court decisions). In addition, Chinese customary law (under certain circumstances, such as land inheritance matters) and international law (treaty and customary) are recognized as primary law sources. But neither will be discussed in this brief guide. For more on Chinese customary law in HK, see “Chinese Law, History of” entry in the Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History, volume 1, pages 447-51 [“HK and Macau” subentry]. It is also available online, but requires a subscription. For more on international law in HK, see “Application and Conclusion of Treaties in the HKSAR of the PRC” and the HK Human Rights Bibliography.

2.1. Basic Law

The most important piece of HK legislation is the Basic Law, which was drafted in the late 1980s and promulgated in 1990 before becoming effective on July 1, 1997. It is often called HK’s constitution or mini-constitution. Besides a preamble proclaiming HK’s establishment as a SAR of the PRC, its nine chapters cover:

  • General principles (Articles 1-11)
  • Relationship between the central authorities in Beijing and HK (Arts. 12-23)
  • Fundamental rights and duties of residents (Arts. 24-42)
  • Political structure (Arts. 43-104)
  • Economy (Arts. 105-35)
  • Education, science, culture, sports, religion, labour, and social services (Arts. 136-49)
  • External affairs (Arts. 150-57)
  • Interpretation and amendment of the Basic Law (Arts. 158-59)
  • Supplementary provisions (Art. 160)

And its three annexes cover:

  • Method for the selection of HK’s Chief Executive
  • Method for the formation of HK’s Legislative Council and its voting procedures
  • National laws to be applied in HK

All other laws must accord with the Basic Law (see Art. 11). For more, see Introduction to the HK Basic Law, HK Basic Law Handbook, Interpreting HK’s Basic Law, and HK Basic Law Bibliography.

Importantly, Chinese as well as English may be used officially by the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities (see Art. 9). No other jurisdiction in the world allows for the use of Chinese as a legal language to develop the common law. The Basic Law does not specify which dialect (Chinese has many) or character system (Chinese has two). Cantonese is widely spoken as are traditional characters widely used in HK. Mandarin (or Putonghua) is widely spoken as are simplified characters widely used in mainland China. Six years ago HK’s then-new Chief Executive (or governor), Leung Chun-ying, raised eyebrows by giving his inauguration speech entirely in Mandarin. His successor, Carrie Lam, gave hers last year mostly in Mandarin. For more on HK’s language politics, see The Common Law in Two Voices. See also South China Morning Post op-ed; China Digital Times post; HK Law Journal article, pages 323-42; SSRN paper; New York Times op-ed; and HK Law Drafting Division paper.

2.2. Other Legislation

Hong Kong’s legislature is called the Legislative Council (LegCo). It enacts principal laws (called ordinances) signed by the Chief Executive and published weekly in the bilingual Government of the HKSAR Gazette (the Gazette has a main volume and seven other volumes, called Supplements. The Supplements are important legal sources. Ordinances are published in Supplement 1). Sometimes LegCo delegates its lawmaking power to the executive authority, resulting in subsidiary laws (variously called by-laws, orders, regulations, and rules) that flesh out principal laws. (Subsidiary laws are published in Supplement 2 of the Gazette.) For more about the legislative process, see LegCo’s website, the DOJ’s Legal System in HK webpage, and HK’s Legislature under China’s Sovereignty, 1998-2013.

The Gazette has published (as Supplements) all HK legislation since 1844. Laws, however, change over time. The changed versions of laws can be found in the Laws of HK. Starting in 1890, editions were published only in English roughly once a decade until 1990. (Although not updated since 1989, it remains the main source for all laws not yet included in the new Laws of HK below.) The current official bilingual compilation of HK legislation is also called Laws of HK and available in print and online. Please note: a new iteration of the online system (now called “Hong Kong e-Legislation” or HKeL, succeeding the “Bilingual Laws Information System” or BLIS that began in 1997) launched on February 24, 2017, and is gradually replacing the print edition (an irregularly published looseleaf) as the official version. This process will take several years to complete. In the meantime, keep consulting the Gazette (also on HKeL) for changes since those published in the latest print edition of Laws of HK.

For the text of 139 of the most important and frequently cited ordinances along with analysis, commentary, and history, see Annotated Ordinances of HK. And for pre-World War II legislative history not in the Annotated Ordinances, see the HK Government Reports Online (1842-1941) full-text image database. In addition to the Gazette, it has three other major government publications: Administrative Reports, Hansard, and Sessional Papers. These have “a wide range of information, such as official notifications, proceedings of the Legislative Council, statistics, and reports of government department and special committees, which are essential to students and scholars in conducting research on HK.”

2.3. Caselaw

Caselaw is law developed by judges in legal proceedings. Hong Kong’s highest court (or “court of last resort”) is the Court of Final Appeal, called the Supreme Court before 1997 and the High Court briefly afterward. For more on its history, operation, and jurisprudence, see HK’s Court of Final Appeal. Lower courts include the High Court (Appeal and First Instance), District Court (including Family Court), and Magistrates’ Court as well as numerous specialized tribunals. For more on the structure of the courts, see the Judiciary’s website. Interestingly, judges and other judiciary members need not be from HK. They may be from other common law jurisdictions (see Basic Law, Art. 92). Recent calls, however, to curtail or end this practice have been getting louder. In response, HK’s former chief justice “called for the issue to be discussed rationally.”

There are two types of HK court decisions, opinions, or judgments: unreported and reported. Unreported judgments are similar to US Supreme Court slip opinions. They are simply raw judgments lacking editorial enhancements like LexisNexis Headnotes and West Key Numbers. All judgments are initially unreported. If deemed important enough, then they may be reported (or published) later in a set of law reports. Be careful not to equate unreported judgments with unimportant judgments. Just as with US court judgments, many months may pass before new judgments are reported. Reported judgments have important points of law, whether new, expansions of previous ones, or both. A case summary (or headnote) is included with the judgment’s text in a set of law reports. After a judgment is reported, all references to it must be to this version instead of the unreported version.

Hong Kong caselaw is readily available online, freely and commercially. The Judiciary’s Judgments and Legal Reference database has decisions from various courts. It is fully searchable, bilingual, and updated frequently. The HK Legal Information Institute (HKLII) also has caselaw (not to mention legislation and some secondary sources), is fully searchable, bilingual, and updated almost daily. And LexisNexis and Westlaw in the US have caselaw as well as lots of other information, though subscriptions are required. After logging in to LexisNexis (for Law School), first click the “Go to Lexis Advance” button, then the “International” tab, and then the “China & Hong Kong” link to view what is available. See also LexisNexis HK for more product details. After logging in to Westlaw, first click the “International Materials” link and then the “Hong Kong” link to view what is available.

Perhaps less readily available to legal researchers outside HK is caselaw in print. General law reporters have judgments from courts at various levels (e.g., Court of Final Appeal, High Court, etc.) and on various areas (e.g., criminal, commercial, etc.). Hong Kong has two general law reporters: HK Law Reports and Digest (HKLRD) and HK Cases (1946-present). The Government Printer published HK Law Reports, the predecessor to HKLRD, from 1905 to 1996. Specialist law reporters focus on a particular court or area. Many exist, such as the HK Family Law Reports (2005-present). Some have either merged with general law reporters or been discontinued. Courts in HK prefer that practitioners cite one of two authorized (or official) law reporters: HK Court of Final Appeal Reports and HKLRD. These reporters are “authorized” because the court or judge has verified their contents before publication. A citation to an unauthorized (or unofficial) law reporter will suffice if a decision has not been published in an authorized law reporter. Please note: on January 1, 2018, HK courts began issuing (and requiring practitioners to use) official neutral citations for all new HK judgments. For details, see Practice Direction 5.5 (dated December 1, 2017).

To learn a decision’s later treatment (if any), consult the HK Case Citator (available only in print) or find the case (accompanied by such information) on LexisNexis. The Consolidated Index to All Reported HK Decisions completely indexes the HK Law Reports, HK Cases, and 25 other law reports worldwide in which HK decisions have been reported. It uses 84 subject headings similar to Halsbury’s Laws of HK (see 3.7 below).

3. Secondary Law Sources

Secondary law sources are merely persuasive and not binding in a jurisdiction. Because HK has a common law legal system, its secondary law sources include everything except legislation (including the Basic Law), caselaw, Chinese customary law (under certain circumstances), and international law (treaty and customary). As mentioned above, all of these sources are primary and binding. Perhaps the most helpful and widely used secondary law source is expert commentary. It can be found in many places, particularly books, scholarly journals, and mass media. Below are descriptions and links to such sources as well as related organizations (educational, informational, professional, etc.).

3.1. Aid Services

The HK government and other groups run clinics that provide legal services to residents unable to afford private counsel:

3.2. Alternative Dispute Resolution

Hong Kong is an important regional center for alternative dispute resolution (ADR), including ADR involving parties from the PRC. The HK High Court (see 2.3 above) has a specialized procedure for engineering and construction cases called the Construction and Arbitration List. The two major non-profit organizations that handle domestic and international arbitration and mediation are the HK International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC) and HK Mediation Centre (HKMC). Selected HKIAC decisions are available from the HKLII. See also the HK Institute of Arbitrators (HKIArb) and China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC) HK Arbitration Center.

The mega-law firms of Baker & McKenzie and Deacons have guides to ADR in HK:

3.3. Book Publishers

LexisNexis HK (includes Butterworths Asia) and Sweet & Maxwell HK (includes Westlaw Asia) are the major publishers of primary and secondary law sources, particularly practice materials. Other noteworthy publishers include:

3.4. Citation Manuals

No uniform system of legal citation exists for HK. For information on how to cite HK law, see the ChU of HK Faculty of Law’s Legal Citation Style Guide. See also the Bluebook, pages 370-73 and Guide to Foreign and International Legal Citations, pages 85-88. For help with creating or deciphering HK legal abbreviations, search the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations.

3.5. Dictionaries

There are a number of bilingual legal dictionaries and glossaries available in print and online. The most widely cited are the bilingual glossaries published by the HK DOJ:

Also, HKU’s Lui Che Woo Law Library (see 3.9 below) publishes a mostly English-language legal research glossary.

3.6. Dissertations and Theses

Information on (and sometimes full-texts of) law dissertations and theses written at HK’s leading universities can be found online freely and commercially. For a related print tool, see Doctoral Dissertations on HK 1900-1997.

3.7. Encyclopedias

Halsbury’s Laws of HK is a 50-plus volume reference work (with looseleaf updates) available in print and online through LexisNexis. Similar to other such works like American Jurisprudence (AmJur) and Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS), its contents are arranged alphabetically by topic and updated regularly. Each entry has a brief description of the area of law annotated extensively with statute and caselaw citations.

3.8. Government Reports

Government reports often detail problems and recommend fixes. The following come from HK and—due to HK’s international importance—the European Union (EU), United Kingdom (UK), and United States (US):

3.9. Libraries

There are six libraries in HK with notable law collections: three academic, one court, one legislative, and one public. They each have websites describing their collections and policies:

3.10. Mass Media

Newspapers are great places to get context when researching legal issues. The venerable South China Morning Post is HK’s most prestigious English-language newspaper. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group bought it in 2015, worrying some journalists. The upstart Hong Kong Free Press is an independent non-profit run by local journalists and financially backed by readers worldwide. Be sure to check out its law blog. The Standard (English) and HK Economic Times (Chinese) are the main financial newspapers. The bilingual Harbour Times covers politics and diplomacy. A hyperlinked directory of more HK newspapers and magazines can be found on the World Press website. Also, the aggregator/blog China Digital Times tracks news in and out of HK about HK.

News.gov.hk (Governmental News, HK) has commentary, features, and news (including legal) from the HKSAR’s Information Services Department. See also the public broadcasting service Radio Television HK.

For academic news, see the HKU Legal Scholarship Blog.

To learn about key legal issues of special concern to media professionals, see HK Media Law. See also the Committee to Protect Journalists (type “Hong Kong” in search box to retrieve information), Foreign Correspondents’ Club HK, PEN HK, and Reporters Without Borders websites.

3.11. Non-Governmental Organizations

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are set up by a person or group of persons concerned typically about a particular issue (e.g., the environment, human rights) for the purposes of educating the public about problems, proposing solutions, and lobbying governments. Below are eight mostly HK-based NGOs whose work implicates the law:

3.12. Practitioners

As in England, the legal profession in HK is composed mostly of barristers and solicitors. The HK Bar Association (HKBA) represents barristers and oversees qualifications for admission and pupilage programs. The Law Society of HK (LSHK) is the analogous organization for solicitors. Both the HKBA and LSHK websites have member lists and a wealth of information about the practice of law in HK. Additional practitioner websites include:

3.13. Research Books and Guides

John Bahrij at ChU of HK wrote an excellent book in 2007 on HK legal research covering primary and secondary sources, research techniques, and Chinese law. It also has appendices with abbreviations, links, and bibliographies. And Jill Cottrell’s instructive 1997 book (last updated in 1999) covers print research on the eve of the online research revolution. Peter Wesley-Smith wrote two helpful books in the 1990s that explain HK’s legal system and law sources: Introduction to the HK Legal System and Sources of HK Law. See also Introduction to Law in the HKSAR by Ian Dobinson and Derek Roebuck, Law and Justice in HK by Eric C. Ip, and the just-published Paths of Justice by Johannes M.M. Chan.

Stephen D. Mau at HK Polytechnic University recently wrote three introductory guide books on HK legal topics: contract, property, and tort. See also his HK Legal Principles.

Below are online legal research guides by HK academic, governmental, and professional groups:

3.14. Scholarly Journals

There are six scholarly journals focusing solely or mostly on HK law. They each have websites describing their missions and contents:

  • Asia Pacific Law Review (2002-present); from CityU of HK
  • Basic Law Bulletin (2001-present); published yearly by the HK DOJ, Civil Service Bureau, and Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau
  • CityU of HK Law Review (2009-present); publishes papers by academics as well as students; website under renovation as of May 2018
  • HK Law Journal (1971-present); from HKU; peer-reviewed journal; in addition to articles, each volume includes an index, tables of cases and legislation, and a personal injury appendix with caselaw annotations, awards, and multipliers
  • HK Lawyer (1998-present); published by the LSHK
  • HK Journal of Legal Studies (1994-present); formerly HK Student Law Review; from HKU

For six Asia/China-focused scholarly journals published outside HK that occasionally cover HK law, see the Asian Journal of Comparative Law, Asian Journal of Law and Society, Chinese Journal of Comparative Law, Chinese Journal of International Law, Chinese Law and Government, and Columbia Journal of Asian Law.

3.15. Schools

There are three world-class HK universities that offer the traditional Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree, which is analogous to the American Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Interestingly, they began recently offering American-style JD degrees as an alternative to the LLB degree:

Graduates wanting to practice law in HK must then complete a Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL), which is an intensive one- or two-year program focused mostly on practical issues. Foreign applicants and graduates of HK universities that do not offer the LLB or JD degrees must pass a conversion exam before being eligible for admission into a PCLL program at ChU, CityU, or HKU. For some recent writings on HK legal education, see “Experientialization of Legal Education in HK: Adoption and Adaptation,” in Legal Education in Asia (2018), pages 197-222; “Legal Education in the Global Context: The Case of HK” in Legal Education in the Global Context, chapter 19; “Legal Education in HK: A History of Reform” in Legal Education in Asia (2014), pages 53-76; “Legal Education in HK: Producing the Producers” in Legal Education in Asia (2010), pages 107-36; and “Developing Active Learning of Skills in Professional Legal Education in HK.”