Hong Kong to Gibraltar

Autonomous Anomalies

Aside from Hong Kong, which political entities function under unusual constitutional systems?

Historic numbers of people are gathering in Hong Kong to protest what they see as China’s progressive abolition of the city’s peculiar form of autonomy. Here we take a look at this and other unorthodox political set ups around the world.

Hong Kong

Massive crowds have been gathering in the central avenues of Hong Kong to protest a bill that would allow extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China for trial.

Protest organizers stated that over 2 million people were present at the most recent demonstration of public opposition to the law.

Authorities have since announced that the process to approve the bill has been suspended as a result of popular protests.

The importance of this vote lies in Hong Kong’s peculiar political set up.

Under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework, which was the background for the UK’s return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, the island city is to remain autonomous in every way with the exception of defence and foreign policy.

Crucially, it is allowed to retain its capitalist market system in contrast to the pseudo-socialist system employed in the economy of mainland China.

Since China took control of the city, however, many have pointed out that Chinese central power has progressively overstepped its authority in increasingly visible ways.

Protests in 2017 began after China stated that Hong Kong would only be able to host free democratic elections as long as the candidates were first approved by Beijing.

The current wave of protests shows growing discontent with Chinese pressure on Hong Kong’s unique form of autonomous government.


Another result of British rule, and another unusual political system, can be found on the big rock known as Gibraltar, located on the southern coast of Spain.

The territory was captured by Anglo-Dutch forces during the Spanish war of succession and was handed over in perpetuity to the UK in 1714.

To this day, the rock is disputed, with the Spanish crown seeking to regain control over it.

As Brexit complicates the UK’s relations with the wider world, questions have arisen regarding the status of the small autonomous region.

Levying much lower tax on its citizens than Spain or any other country in the EU, Gibraltar has prospered as a home to a range of financial companies and online gambling platforms.

Its political system falls very closely within the parameters imposed on Hong Kong, whereby the British monarch is head of state, but the head of government is elected by the citizens of Gibraltar and is not subordinate to residents of 10 Downing Street.

The British Crown assumes responsibility for the territory’s defense and foreign policy and nothing else.


Another strangely structured tax haven is the city of Ceuta, which coincidentally, despite being within the European Union, is not located in Europe.

The city lies on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, standing alone as a fenced-in exclave of the Spanish state.

While Spain treats it as an extension of its own territory and a trading post of strategic relevance, Morocco has continuously questioned Spanish sovereignty over the city, arguing that looking at a map should be enough to see why the city belongs to Morocco and not Spain.

In contrast with Hong Kong and its autonomous sister city of Macau, both of which were ceded to China by their former colonizers, Spain has shown no interest in following suit.

Ceuta operates with autonomous status, while still being subject to the Spanish central government. It also operates with a lower taxation status, and has benefited from trade with neighboring Morocco.

It depends heavily on its international port for its economy, strategically located on a channel through which half of the world’s trade must pass.

In sum, while Hong Kong’s current predicament with Chinese political pressure has created widespread tension among its citizens, its unorthodox self-governing system is not that unique. Both within the Chinese system, in the cases of Macau or Hong Kong, or in these other examples of European quasi-colonial heritage, exceptions to regular political ruling systems can be found with relative ease.

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