The sturdiest boundary between the mainland and Hong Kong can actually be found in a soft-cover, 69-page pamphlet painstakingly drafted in the 1980s and officially approved by the governments of China and Britain, the former colonial ruler of the territory. (The people of Hong Kong had no say in the matter.) That document says Hong Kong is a unique part of China with its own laws, freedoms and courts for the next 44 years. It's called the Basic Law. If you place the Basic Law between two books on a shelf, you can barely spot it without glasses.
But that skinny volume has enormous power. It's the Basic Law that allows thousands of Hong Kongers to nip across the border for a perm or cheap vegetables—and prevents 1.3 billion other Chinese citizens from taking the reverse trip (except with special, difficult-to-obtain visas). Thanks to the Basic Law, hundreds of thousands of the territory's citizens were free to take to the streets in the past three weeks to protest without the threat of tanks rolling in. It gives Hong Kong a largely independent judiciary and a genuine court of public opinion, whose harsh judgment led to last week's resignations of Security Secretary Regina Ip and Finance Secretary Antony Leung, two high-profile members of the cabinet of Tung Chee-hwa, the territory's increasingly embattled Chief Executive. Late in the week, Tung announced that Health Secretary Yeoh Eng-kiong would step down as head of a panel doing a postmortem on the government's reaction to the SARS crisis this spring—in response to strong public criticism that Yeoh was a conflicted party. And then Tung hopped on a plane to Beijing to explain to his puzzled bosses what was happening on his side of the border.
What he should have told them is that the fallout from the street marches has, if anything, only energized the protest campaign. And the next issue for the protesters will be the Basic Law itself. They don't want to burn it in the streets. Nor, in fact, do they want even a single word of it changed. What they want is to exploit it: specifically, two vague promises that, if enacted, would significantly broaden Hong Kong's still limited democracy. "We don't intend to upset constitutional relations between Beijing and Hong Kong," says pro-democracy legislator Cyd Ho. "We just want Hong Kong to progress in an orderly manner under the Basic Law."
The office of Democratic Party chairman Yeung Sum hums with bustling and determined purpose. Stacks of literature await distribution, photocopiers whir and clunk, ziggurats of overflowing ring binders are heaped in every corner. An eager intern is happy to point you in the direction of whomever you're seeking. This seems like a political party in the midst of a campaign.
In some ways it is. But rather than an election campaign, this is a campaign for elections. "We are guaranteed an elected government by the Basic Law," says Yeung, "even if it doesn't say when." On Hong Kong's streets and in its newspapers, that goal is called "constitutional reform," although the term is a slight misnomer. Hong Kong is governed under the Basic Law and China's constitution, and nobody is proposing changes to either. The Basic Law says the "ultimate aim" is for Hong Kong's Chief Executive and the Legislative Council (Legco) to be elected by the people, and it sets the earliest dates for those changes: 2007 for a directly elected Chief Executive, 2008 for a reconstituted Legco. But it doesn't say how one gets there from where Hong Kong is today, with a Chief Executive selected by a rubber-stamp convention and a legislature padded with members who aren't directly elected by geographic constituencies.
It's a non-road map to democracy, one of those impossibly distant Chinese promises that inspired Hong Kongers to cross their fingers a little less tightly—and do almost nothing more. In the six years since Beijing has taken control, there's been no serious public discussion—by any side—of how to get direct elections going, even as 2007 approaches.
While the democrats are pumped, the atmosphere at DAB headquarters these days is more torpid. The reception area is deserted. There's a whiff of industrial floral scent, reminiscent of a visit to a business hotel's rest room in Guangdong. Secretary-general Ma Lik has loads of time to meet a visitor, and a good amount of Hong Kong-style candor too. "The Democratic Party is going up like this," he says, tracing an imaginary graph in the air, "and we are going down." In 2000 the DAB won the largest number of directly elected seats in Legco and 30% of the popular vote because of its emphasis on livelihood issues and its closeness to Tung's government. But Ma now predicts that all the pork the DAB has barreled—such as getting bus shelters built—will be forgotten in the next Legco election, "where politics will be the prime issue." Ma is currently planning a holiday, which he suggests he could badly use. After that, he says, the DAB needs to do some heavy thinking: "We have to reconsider our relationship with the government."
Beijing's public pronouncements on the developments in Hong Kong have so far been brief enough to be anodyne, not least because the Chinese leadership probably does not yet know what to say or do. Cracking down on Hong Kong's "velvet revolution" would be disastrous for China's international image. And though Beijing cannot be happy with how Tung has let things get out of hand in the territory, removing him would probably mean his replacement would have to be directly elected. The mood in Hong Kong is such that yet another "election" by the narrow, unrepresentative body currently tasked with choosing the Chief Executive would not be tolerated by the public, many of whom have plenty of time to hit the streets these days. (Last week, Hong Kong's unemployment rate reached a record 8.6%.)
Realpolitik Zhongnanhai-style might also be a factor. (Up in the leadership compound, all politics, even Hong Kong politics, is very local.) Tung was handpicked by then President Jiang Zemin, who remains an influential figure. Jiang's successor Hu Jintao along with Premier Wen Jiabao have been projecting a kinder and gentler face of the Chinese leadership while still paying public allegiance to Jiang. Forcing Tung to step down would endear them to Hong Kongers, but might precipitate an internal rift with high political costs. "We don't want to see Hong Kong become a pawn in a power struggle between Jiang and the new boys," says Allen Lee, a Hong Kong delegate to China's National People Congress.
Chen Ming-tong, vice chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, which sets the island's China policy, predicts that "Beijing will carefully calculate costs between tolerance and suppression." His boss, President Chen Shui-bian, used the issue last week to stir the waters between Taiwan and the mainland, telling the Asian Wall Street Journal that Hong Kong had lost its freedom since the handover. "We couldn't have imagined that in just six short years since Hong Kong's return to China it would change so fast," the President said. Chen Shui-bian is going into a re-election campaign of his own: presidential elections will be held next March, and speaking out against China is popular in Taiwan. His message is that "one country, two systems" has proved to be unworkable. Many people in Hong Kong take the reverse position: that greater democracy would vindicate that complicated governing philosophy. "Beijing should not come down on us like a ton of bricks," says legislator Emily Lau. "If they do, Beijing can kiss goodbye to 'one country, two systems' with the whole world watching." Others think a winnable fight for more freedoms has begun, just so long as Beijing isn't overly provoked. "The radical part of the movement will always want to get democracy in China also," says Lee Cheuk-yan, the Legco member and co-organizer of the July 1 protest. "But the people of Hong Kong will not want to enrage Beijing. That's the sentiment of the town. We have high autonomy, we are fighting for our own autonomy, and we are asking them: 'Respect your own promise.'" That's the message for China coming from Hong Kongers thumbing through their thin copies of the Basic Law.