More sizzle than steak," is the verdict of Jack Maisano, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, on the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), introduced in 2004 to give Hong Kong a head start on its rivals in the China market.
However, he does stress that developments like CEPA – more a wave of encouragement for cross-boundary business rather than a gift of gold – do stand out as individual examples of a strengthening Hong Kong-mainland bond.
It is also possible to go the other way, though, and identify situations that represent a step backwards. Perhaps few events have redefined the relationship as comprehensively as the demonstration on July 1, 2003 in response to the proposed anti-subversion law.
The legislation was based on Article 23 of the Basic Law, which provides that Hong Kong shall enact its own laws "to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central government." It was immediately flagged by critics on human rights grounds – they argued that it granted police excessive powers when carrying out investigations and extended Beijing’s reach into Hong Kong by outlawing political organizations blacklisted by the mainland.
Around 500,000 people took to the streets in protest.
"It was a very important moment because it sent a message to Beijing that there was something wrong – they had to look at why people were unhappy," said Christine Loh, a former legislative councilor who is now chief executive of Hong Kong think tank Civic Exchange.
"What happened with the march was that Hong Kong people felt they needed a democratically elected leader. [Then chief executive] Tung Chee Hwa was not effective in protecting their interests."
End of the Tung dynasty
The anti-subversion law was postponed and then withdrawn. Tung’s administration never recovered and he stepped down in March 2005 and was replaced by Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang.
In a way, the appointment of Tsang was an evolution in Beijing’s thinking towards Hong Kong.
Tsang, as a bowtie-sporting career civil servant, was hardly the darling of the pro-Beijing lobby. But he was consistently the most popular government official in the SAR and the central authorities needed someone who would not only listen to them but who also had public credibility.
Opinion polls suggest that, had March’s chief executive election – in which Tsang’s bid for a second term was challenged by democratic candidate Alan Leong – been run as a full public ballot, Tsang would still have won.
"Nobody believed Donald would be picked to replace Tung," Alan Lee, former legislative councilor and Hong Kong’s deputy to the ninth and 10th National People’s Congress, told a gathering at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong in May. "There were two things that gave him the job: High public ratings and knowledge of governing the civil service and how it operates."
However, as much as the 2003 demonstration was a reminder to Beijing that it would have to do more to win over Hong Kong, it was also a cue for the authorities to exert more political control.
Election of the chief executive and legislative council is outlined as an "ultimate aim" in Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law. Annexes I and II specify selection methods with the proviso that the process remains unchanged for the first 10 years. Hong Kong’s political parties therefore targeted 2007 as the date for the roll-out of a more democratic process.
"There was complete consensus that 2007 was the date," said veteran Democratic Party legislative councilor Martin Lee. "Then in April 2004, Beijing, without any consultation, unilaterally postponed the democracy date indefinitely.
"They thought they could win over the Hong Kong people in 10 years but, when they saw this was not forthcoming because of this huge demonstration, they moved the goalposts."
Having secured his second term, Tsang promised to resolve the democracy issue with full consultation. However, the path remains unclear. The Basic Law makes provisions for a "broadly representative nominating committee" that puts chief executive candidates up for election, but it doesn’t explain how this committee would operate.
It is generally accepted that, in order to get Beijing’s support, any election model must allow the central authorities to screen those being put into the final ballot.
"Donald Tsang has to make good use of whatever high level political support he enjoys right now," said Professor Anthony Cheung, who serves as a non-official member of the Executive Council. "Whatever the mechanism, it must be enough to convince the Hong Kong public that the pro-democracy camp can participate and its candidates be nominated.
"It is going to be a very difficult task."
With 2007 now ruled out, the democrats are targeting 2012. Alan Lee believes they should be more willing to compromise, citing 2017 as the best chance for a more open election. Martin Lee agrees with this projection yet remains skeptical about reaching the cross-party consensus that Tsang desires and securing a system that is acceptable to all concerned.
"Beijing just wants a yes-man – they don’t mind an election as long as they know the result beforehand."
Lee believes that, since the demonstration in 2003, Beijing has become far more hands-on in its management of the SAR. "On all important policy matters, I don’t see the Hong Kong government exercising a high degree of autonomy at all. I see Beijing in charge."
The anti-subversion law debate didn’t sow the seeds of Hong Kong’s universal suffrage dilemma but it certainly supplied liberal amounts of fertilizer. However, the event must be studied in its true context – it coincided with an economic downturn and the aftermath of SARS.
"It’s no coincidence that the July 2003 protests about Article 23 came in the middle of an economic downturn," said Tai Hui, a Hong Kong-based economist with Standard Chartered Bank. "Economics has always been the trigger of discontent – as long as you have economic prosperity you have political stability."
This view is echoed by Peter Cheung, head of the politics and public administration department at the University of Hong Kong, who notes that the economic improvements of the last few years have seen a drop in calls for democratization.
To some, though, tying the debate to changes in public feeling is over-simplistic. Democracy is seen as key to preserving Hong Kong’s rule of law, a means of preventing the erosion of freedoms through unpopular legislation or the reinterpretation of the Basic Law by Beijing.
"Right now, political trust in institutions is not too high, partly because of the sense of political uncertainty", said Anthony Cheung. "That is why I think resolving the question of universal suffrage is so important – it’s not about how to elect a legislative council but how to build confidence in the political institutions."
It is these institutions – combined with the mainland’s deficiencies in this area – that represent Hong Kong’s major strength. Indeed, it can be argued that Hong Kong has in fact built on the systems installed by the British to provide Chinese solutions to Chinese problems.
In a region synonymous with piracy, Hong Kong has developed intellectual property laws that go beyond those in Europe and the US. Similarly, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has been successful in rooting out institutional corruption.
"There is so much corruption in China and they must do what we did: Set up the ICAC," said Martin Lee. "Hong Kong had to declare an amnesty because the ICAC was so effective."
He recalls attending a lecture given by Deng Xiaoping in 1987 to legislators drafting the Basic Law. Deng’s topic was the promise of 50 years of the "one country, two systems" model.
"One thing he said – and this surprised me – was that if 50 years proved not to be enough, we could have another 50. ‘If we can’t catch you in 50 years, give us another 50,’ that’s what he was saying. He wanted to take back Hong Kong but he didn’t want it to drop dead."
It may seem idealistic to suggest that, after half a century of separate legal systems, it is China that will converge with Hong Kong rather than the other way round. Given the pragmatism that exists on both sides of the SAR boundary, it will probably be something in between.
At the same time, if this is a 50-year drama, Hong Kong has only reached the end of the first act.
In many ways, the territory is locked in contradiction. It must balance mainland cooperation and competition; further integration and the need to preserve global status; political aims with government realities. How Hong Kong resolves these issues will dictate its progress.
"The nature of integration is the challenge. These first 10 years have gone well, but it is only the first 10 years after 150 years of separation," said Maisano. "We cannot possibly think the job is done."