Now, five years on, the yoke is coming down on the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China. Last week, the administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa unveiled what was always going to be one of the most sensitive pieces of legislation after the handover: the implementation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, calling for a provision against subversion.
Framing this was so tricky that Tung and his colleagues shied away from it from the start. Even highly placed members of the administration admitted, in those early years after the handover, that it would be wrong to enact such a piece of legislation when the majority of the members of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong were not elected by a popular franchise.
The draft of Article 23 represents an all-too logical development of the manner in which the Hong Kong government has interpreted its promised high degree of autonomy as meaning a high degree of freedom to kowtow to the sovereign power in the north. Shorn of its linguistic niceties, it lays down that any organization of which Beijing disapproves on security grounds will be proscribed in Hong Kong. That could, for instance, mean that the Falun Gong movement, which the central government has been persecuting remorselessly, could be outlawed in the SAR. Or it could put Hong Kong's democratic parties, whose members are refused entrance to the mainland, at risk.
The administration in Hong Kong points out, in its defense, that Falun Gong and the Hong Kong Democrats are not so classified. But that misses the point. What the Tung administration is doing is handing to Beijing the power to decide who shall do what in Hong Kong. This makes a mockery of the autonomy pledged five years ago. The snag for those who care about this is that the ill is being done—on the surface at least—by Hong Kong people themselves, who, in another of the stock phrases of 1997, would rule Hong Kong free from the shackles of colonialism. So who can object?
China and Tung Chee-hwa have kept meticulously to the letter of the agreements between London and Beijing. With a system that permits no effective opposition, why should they do otherwise? Are Washington and London, united with China in the fight on terror, going to nitpick over Article 23?
With the economy in deep decline and morale slipping, it is unlikely that anybody inside the SAR is going to mount an effective challenge. For sure, there will be no immediate dramatic developments when Article 23 goes into law, any more than there were after July 1, 1997. Beijing knows the value of biding its time, and of letting the gradual erosion of the spirit of freedom take its toll.
Back in the 1990s, Deng Xiaoping worried about the "Hong Kong virus" entering the bloodstream of the mainland and challenging the Communist Party's monopoly on power. Now that Beijing has struck its deal between economic freedom and political restriction, the virus looks as if it is moving the other way. So what, the Hong Kong administration may say, if we lock up a few dissenters to burnish our credentials with the emperor to the north provided he gives us some economic advantages to pull us out of our slump?
This represents a sad outcome for a territory that had within it the potential to become something extraordinary within the last major state ruled by a Communist Party. Both Beijing and the SAR could have benefited from a true interchange of economies, cultures and societies. Instead, David has quailed before Goliath.