Hong Kong and Mainland China – 9 most fundamental differences

The most noticeable difference between Hong Kong and China is that Hong Kong drives on the left side of the road while China drives on the right. In this article, we will discuss the societal differences between Hong Kong and China. Here are nine fundamental differences.

Hong Kong is one of the 'Four Asian Tigers' of economic growth
Hong Kong is one of the ‘Four Asian Tigers’ of economic growth

Area And Population

Mainland China is understood to be the land area and coastal islands of the People’s Republic of China, including Hainan Island, but excluding Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. This is a political term rather than a geographical one. Mainland China has a total area of 9,597,000 km², while Hong Kong is much smaller in comparison. Let’s briefly talk about the history so that you can remember and younger readers can grasp the content more uniformly.

After the First Opium War, in 1842, Hong Kong became a British colony, consisting only of the Hong Kong Island at that time. Later, the Qing Dynasty ceded the Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island to the British. In 1898, the Hong Kong territory was expanded to the New Territories when the Qing Dynasty leased it to Britain for 99 years. In 1984, China and the United Kingdom signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, under which Hong Kong was to be returned to China in 1997, along with certain agreed-upon binding terms.

The land area of mainland China is 8600 times larger than the land area of Hong Kong
The land area of mainland China is 8600 times larger than the land area of Hong Kong

1997 was a significant milestone in the history of Hong Kong. Currently, Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, maintaining a distinct political system. After significant expansion, Hong Kong now covers only about 1,110 km², which is over 8600 times smaller than Mainland China. The current population of Hong Kong is about 7 million, while Mainland China has over 1.4 billion people.

Mandarin And Cantonese

Of course, there are many languages and dialects in mainland China. However, the most common language in mainland China is Mandarin, also known as Standard Chinese. In contrast, Cantonese is used in Hong Kong. Both Mandarin and Cantonese use pictorial characters, but they are two different languages with different writing systems, pronunciations, sentence structures, etc.

I apologize that I am not proficient in these languages, so if my explanation is not accurate, please feel free to correct me. Mandarin uses a very high tone, while Cantonese is very low and sounds very deep.

In Hong Kong, traditional Chinese characters are used to preserve the pictorial nature of the writing, similar to Taiwan. In China, simplified characters are used, meaning that some strokes in the characters have been reduced, resulting in faster writing, but sometimes losing the original meaning of the character. Cantonese is also known as Cantonese dialect (粵語) and has a romanization system called Jyutping to transcribe the pictorial characters into Latin letters.

Additionally, English is quite popular in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers, especially young people, have an English name in addition to their Cantonese name. They use their English name in informal contexts and their Cantonese name in formal ones. In some fields such as law, contract terms, and business in general, English is still preferred. This is not as common in mainland China.

Traffic Rules

Hong Kong is a former British colony and overseas territory that still maintains the rule of driving on the left side of the road, while Mainland China does the opposite. In 1903, the first car appeared on the streets of Hong Kong and it drove on the left side of the road. It was not because Hong Kong was a British colony at the time, but rather it was the prevailing traffic rule at that time. Many countries around the world have changed to driving on the right side, but Hong Kong has continued this rule throughout the colonial period and until today.

In 1997, China regained control of Hong Kong, and the Basic Law of Hong Kong was passed, ensuring that the “way of life” of this city would not change until 2047. What will happen to Hong Kong after this time remains unknown, but we are talking about the current situation. The rule of driving on the left side is obviously also a part of the way of life of the people of Hong Kong, so it is still guaranteed as before. Along the Hong Kong-China border, there are currently dozens of roads and bridges. When traveling between Hong Kong and China, drivers must change lanes to comply with local laws.

Hong Kong drives on the left side of the road while China drives on the right side.
Hong Kong drives on the left side of the road while China drives on the right side.

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, which connects Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun district to the city of Zhuhai in Mainland China. In principle, half of the bridge is under the management of Hong Kong, and the other half belongs to China. But in reality, it is applied according to Hong Kong’s traffic rules. The over 4km long bridge requires drivers to drive on the left side of the road until they reach the mainland of Zhuhai and then switch lanes according to the unique principle of the bridge, from left to right, which is quite clever. In the opposite direction from Mainland China to Hong Kong, drivers must also change lanes for their cars to enter the left lane to cross into Hong Kong.

There is also a more special bridge that connects the three cities of Hong Kong, Zhuhai, and Macao, which is very long. Another special thing is that among these three cities, Hong Kong and Macao are two cities that drive on the left side of the road while Zhuhai is a city on the Mainland that drives on the right side of the road. Unlike the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, most of this bridge applies the rule of driving on the right side, even on the territory of Hong Kong. And it also applies a complex lane changing system, which is located on an artificial island outside Hong Kong International Airport. Anyone who wants to drive here must study it carefully.

Chinese Yuan And Hong Kong Dollar

The Wise Goat is discussing economics, and there are three fundamental differences between Hong Kong and China, which I will combine because they all relate to the economic aspect. Firstly, Hong Kong’s economy has strengths in services and finance, while China’s strengths lie in manufacturing. Hong Kong is not good at producing goods compared to China, and many items depend on imports from foreign countries. On the other hand, China’s goods are abundant. However, in recent years, mainland China has reduced its proportion of exports and simple processing.

The Chinese government encourages investment in economic zones aimed at producing high-tech materials, services, and finance. One such rapidly developing area is Shenzhen, located adjacent to Hong Kong. China initially planned to connect Shenzhen and Shanghai on the mainland with Hong Kong to attract securities investors. However, by now, Shanghai has developed very quickly and may have overtaken Hong Kong to become a new financial center.

Chinese Yuan And Hong Kong Dollar
Chinese Yuan And Hong Kong Dollar

Secondly, Hong Kong has low tax rates, promotes free trade, and is less subject to government intervention than mainland China. From 1997 to 2019, Hong Kong was ranked as the freest economy in the world in the global economic freedom index of the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal. Since 2021, Hong Kong is no longer ranked separately but is ranked together with China at position 107 in the world ranking of economic freedom indices of countries.

Thirdly, Hong Kong uses the Hong Kong Dollar as its official currency, while mainland China uses the Renminbi. The Renminbi is the 8th most widely used currency in the world. In Hong Kong, many businesses do not accept Renminbi for payment, while some do. However, trading in Renminbi in Hong Kong is quite risky and has a significantly lower exchange rate than the official rate. The Hong Kong Dollar is also the 9th most widely used currency in the world. However, it is not prevalent in circulation in mainland China. But in Macau, it is different, where the Hong Kong Dollar is widely accepted as a form of payment.

Internet – Social Network

We also know that social media and online search tools in China operate in a different environment compared to most of the world. Google’s search engine was launched in China in 2006 and was suddenly withdrawn in 2010 due to strong content censorship from the country. The search engine was restricted from displaying sensitive political speeches and content. After withdrawing from the market, Google also encountered firewall systems that restricted access by users from mainland China.

China only allows access to its own social networking sites
China only allows access to its own social networking sites

Similarly, many social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are also blocked, and some news sites from the UK, France, and the US cannot be accessed in China. Instead of Google, they have Baidu for searching, which currently dominates over 70% of the online search market in China. Instead of Facebook and Twitter, they have Weibo, one of the largest social media platforms in mainland China.

On the contrary, in Hong Kong, almost all websites and social media platforms are accessible, and many Hong Kong artists have channels on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Most Populous And Non-existent Military

The Chinese military is responsible for ensuring the country’s national defense and is called the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), or the Liberation Army for short. It is a force of over 2 million active-duty personnel, 500,000 reserve personnel, and approximately 1.5 million personnel in paramilitary units. Therefore, in terms of the number of active-duty personnel, the Chinese military is currently the largest in the world.

The Chinese military has the largest number of personnel in the world
The Chinese military has the largest number of personnel in the world

In contrast, Hong Kong has never had its own military force or organized army. Previously, the British Overseas Forces in Hong Kong were responsible for national defense. The Hong Kong government had to pay for this force. After 1997, the Chinese military stationed a garrison unit in Hong Kong, which is referred to as the Hong Kong Garrison in English. However, the Hong Kong government is not financially responsible for this unit.

According to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, military forces stationed in Hong Kong are not allowed to interfere with local civil affairs. The Hong Kong government is still responsible for maintaining public order. This means that if there are protests in Hong Kong, the stationed military forces are not allowed to intervene or suppress them. Nevertheless, the stationed military unit of the Chinese military is considered an important symbolic representation of China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

Two Systems

China operates under a socialist system, governed by the Communist Party. The National People’s Congress, a nationwide representative assembly, holds legislative power. Delegates to this congress are elected by delegates at the provincial congresses, with the majority being party members. The Political Consultative Conference serves as a political advisory body. Executive power is held by the State Council, with the Prime Minister at its head. The Prime Minister is appointed by the President, who is also the head of state. Since the 1990s, the President has also held the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, serving as the leader of both the party and the state.

In Hong Kong, the Legislative Council and the government were previously led by a Governor appointed by the United Kingdom, with most governors during that period being British. Following the 1991 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Legislative Council was directly elected. Since 1997, China has implemented a “one country, two systems” policy, allowing Hong Kong to maintain its capitalist system and legal framework similar to that of the UK.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law can be considered its constitution, which stipulates that the socialist system and policies will not be implemented in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life will remain unchanged for 50 years. The Governor of Hong Kong was replaced with the title “Chief Executive.”

China promised that the final Chief Executive would be elected through “universal suffrage,” but currently the Chief Executive is still elected indirectly through a 1,200-member election committee, with candidates approved by the Chinese government. This is one of the reasons for the pro-democracy protests in the region.

Common Law And Civil Law

Those who watch Hong Kong and Chinese movies can see that the trial procedures in Hong Kong and China are different, from the sequence of the trial to the form of lawyers and judges. In fact, it represents the differences between the two most common legal systems in the world.

Hong Kong operates under Common Law, like the UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. Mainland China follows Civil Law, like France, Germany, Vietnam, and others. In the Civil Law system, specific behaviors that violate the law are stipulated, along with the corresponding sanctions. Legal situations are based on the research of legal experts, aimed at following all aspects of life, such as labor, administration, land, etc.

Hong Kong operates under Common Law
Hong Kong operates under Common Law

Meanwhile, Common Law is based on customs and precedents, as the name suggests, relying on unwritten rules and regulations. The Court’s decision is the basis of the law. People will use previous judgments as a basis to judge similar cases based on the principle of fairness.

We can see that lawyers in the Civil Law system only need to know the provisions of the law to use as a basis, while lawyers in Common Law need to understand the circumstances and judgments of previous cases, known as case law. The role of lawyers in the Common Law system is highly valued, and the level of lawyers is clear.

Citizens in Hong Kong, although considered to have Chinese citizenship, are still tried under Hong Kong law, from the lower courts to the higher ones, all conducted within the territory of Hong Kong. The Supreme People’s Court or the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in Beijing does not have jurisdiction over Hong Kong citizens. This is because Hong Kong and China are two independent legal systems. The highest punishment in mainland China is death penalty, while the highest sentence in Hong Kong is life imprisonment.

Passport And Visa

Hong Kong residents hold their own passports, officially known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport issued by the Hong Kong Immigration Department. The nationality section of the passport indicates Chinese nationality. Hong Kong has a liberal visa policy with many countries and territories and ranks high on the Passport Index, surpassing mainland China. Mainland Chinese citizens who wish to visit Hong Kong must go through normal immigration procedures, including those required for traveling between any two countries.

The Hong Kong passport ranks high on the Passport Power Index
The Hong Kong passport ranks high on the Passport Power Index

The Hong Kong visa is different from the Chinese visa. However, because Hong Kong does not have official diplomatic relations with other countries, those who want to apply for a visa to the region still need to go through the Chinese embassy or consulate in their home country. Alternatively, they can apply online on the Hong Kong Immigration Department’s website.

9 Fundamental Differences Between Hong Kong And Mainland China

This article has highlighted nine basic differences between Hong Kong and mainland China, which can be summarized as follows: China is 8,600 times larger than Hong Kong; Hong Kong uses Cantonese, while China uses Mandarin; China uses Chinese Yuan, while Hong Kong uses the Hong Kong dollar; China drives on the right side of the road, while Hong Kong drives on the left; Hong Kong has no military, while China has the world’s largest military; China restricts access to Google and Facebook, while Hong Kong does not; Two different systems of capitalism and socialism; Hong Kong operates under common law, while China operates under civil law; and finally, different passport and visa policies.

Thank you for reading this article.

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