By official count, more than 450 celebratory events have been scheduled, wall-to-wall from April to December this year, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule. The exact date is July 1, also the climax of the celebrations, when the pandas Le Le and Ying Ying will make their official debut at Ocean Park Hong Kong. On that day there will be two parades, several Chinese opera performances, a soccer match and a ceremony in which Chinese President Hu Jintao will swear in Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his administration for a new five-year term. That night there will be the requisite fireworks, as there have been every year for the past decade, over Victoria Harbor.
In the first ten years of the “One Country, Two Systems” experiment, Hong Kong has seen enormous changes. In that short span the city has soldiered through the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, the era of “negative assets” early in the new millennium, the bird flu scare of 2002 and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) of 2003, before launching into an economic renaissance that, increasingly and inextricably, is tied to that of mainland China. Bilateral trade between the two economies reached $166 billion in 2006, up from $113 billion in 2004.
Ten years ago the fear was that civil liberties would erode under Chinese rule, despite the promise that the political and social system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region would be preserved for fifty years after the changeover (as the common, translation-resistant parlance put it, “horse racing will continue, dancing will continue”). The city’s last British governor, Chris Patten, made it his mission to implant democracy in the electoral process; by 1995 all sixty seats of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council were chosen through fully democratic election. In that historic poll “pan-democrats”–the term commonly used to designate the various democratic parties–won nineteen seats, more than any other party. The plan was that the duly elected legislature would continue its term through the handover. But even before the ballots were cast, Beijing declared it would dissolve the lawmaking body, dismantle the electoral structure and install a provisional legislature chosen by a Beijing-appointed committee.
Full democracy is still unrealized. At the same time, the kind of Tiananmen Square-style smackdown on critics of Beijing that many worried about has not happened. Law Yuk Kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, argues that there are subtler cues to China’s influence in the city. For example, the Standing Committee of Beijing’s National People’s Congress has the right to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law (its Constitution, in effect), and its decision takes precedence over the Court of Final Appeal (CFA), Hong Kong’s highest court.
One such interpretation, in 1999, involved the residency rights of children born outside Hong Kong to parents with legal residency, including children born out of wedlock. The ruling had significant ramifications for the city. Increased business ties mean that more and more Hong Kong residents have been traveling to China to work. A substantial number of businessmen have begun to keep mainland mistresses, who, as of the mid-1990s, had given birth to more than 300,000 children.
The CFA ruled that these children (both legitimate and illegitimate) should have the legal right to live in Hong Kong. Projecting that the verdict could open the city to an influx of 1.67 million migrants, the government decided to ask the Standing Committee to interpret the article concerning the right of abode in the Basic Law. The committee put a limit on the number of children who can enter the city. It was an emotional, divisive issue–and one indication of the difference between democratic politicians and human rights campaigners, on the one hand, and many, if not most, Hong Kong residents. While the democrats argued that Beijing’s reinterpretation should be dismissed, the city’s residents were supportive of the cap, given their fear that a flood of Chinese migrants would drain the city’s welfare system.