Sands shift in plans for the delta's mega merger

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 December, 2010, 12:00am

The announcement last week that, beginning Wednesday, travel restrictions to Hong Kong will be relaxed for migrant workers in Shenzhen is but the latest move towards the economic integration of Hong Kong with the mainland, especially Shenzhen.

Last year, Shenzhen's 2.5 million permanent residents were given the right to apply for one-year multiple-entry individual visit endorsements to Hong Kong. Now, the city's four million migrant workers can come here more easily too. The plan seems to be that, bit by bit, Hong Kong and Shenzhen will merge until the two become one.

In 2007, mainland media reported on a master plan for Shenzhen which allowed for Shenzhen and Hong Kong to begin merging over the next 13 years. The following year, the National Development and Reform Commission issued a development plan for the Pearl River Delta, which included Hong Kong and Macau.

Mainland media suggested that the merger of Hong Kong and Shenzhen would help 'accomplish the absorption of Hong Kong into the mainland'. Ten years after the handover, it seemed, Hong Kong was well on its way to integration with the mainland.

But what about 'one country, two systems' and 50 years without change? Some people were wary of how fast Hong Kong was hurtling towards seamless unification.

Voices were raised questioning the wisdom, indeed the legality, of some actions. Lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, who represents the legal community, criticised the willingness of the Hong Kong government 'to fudge the law on the personal or political assurance of mainland officials'.

Some unease was also reflected in a question by legislative councillor Cyd Ho Sau-lan in November 2009. In the course of implementing co-operation plans and agreements with the mainland, she asked, had the Hong Kong authorities looked into how the differences in the legal systems of the two places would be dealt with?

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung soothingly responded that 'where laws and regulations of the two places are involved', they were to be dealt with 'strictly in accordance with the principles of 'one country, two systems' and the provisions of the Basic Law'.

Perhaps because of the disquiet, talk of a new Shenzhen-Hong Kong 'mega-city' died down. Instead, efforts focused on economic - not political - integration.

At some point, Beijing will need to clarify Hong Kong's future after 2047. Article 5 of the Basic Law says, 'The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years'. Does that mean the socialist system will be practised after 50 years, beginning in 2047? And what would socialism mean anyway in 2047?

Actually, the Basic Law did, in a sense, defer the absorption of Hong Kong by China for 50 years, moving that deadline from 1997 to 2047.

It is now 37 years from the deadline, roughly equivalent to 1960 in the colonial period when the New Territories lease was due to expire in 1997. Few people were concerned then, and Beijing was certainly giving no thought to the issue. But just seven years later, riots erupted in Hong Kong and the British seriously contemplated abandoning their colony 30 years early.

No one in Beijing or Hong Kong knows what the mainland will be like in 37 years' time. There is, thus, no point now locking Hong Kong into a particular course of convergence with the mainland in 2047. Hong Kong's post-1997 future was decided in 1984. This means we still have two decades or so to grope for a solution.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.