The Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) is an economic agreement between the government of Hong Kong and the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China. Signed on June 29, 2003, it is a free trade agreement that allows qualifying products, companies and residents of Hong Kong preferential access to the mainland Chinese market.
We're second-class citizens in mainland China, says Hong Kong lawyer Thomas Ho
We are second-class citizens, says Thomas So referring to restrictions on mainland practice
Veteran solicitor Thomas So Shiu-tsung has a legal qualification from the mainland, but says he and fellow Hong Kong lawyers are nothing more than "second-class citizens" across the border.
"Our practice on the mainland is still very restricted," says So, a commercial litigation specialist and vice-president of the Law Society. "For example, we can't undertake any litigation involving criminal law or administrative issues. Even for commercial cases, we can handle only those involving Hong Kong."
In 2009, So was among the early batch of Hong Kong lawyers to obtain a mainland qualification under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement. But he says getting a mainland qualification is tough, with no credit given to past legal experience in the exams.
"I keep saying we, Hong Kong lawyers, are second-class citizens," says So. A solicitor since 1988 and a partner in one of the city's biggest law firms, So began preparing for opportunities on the mainland before the 1997 handover. He studied mainland law part-time in Beijing between 1994 and 1997, and obtained a doctorate in regional conflict of laws in 2003.
Since 2000, he has travelled each month to Beijing and Shanghai to handle cross-border cases for his firm.
So admits that the Hong Kong law firms see few commercial benefits to setting up across the border, as they are allowed to under Cepa. But he has seen "indirect gains" from Cepa in his work in Hong Kong. So finds that clients involved in cross-border disputes have more confidence in lawyers like him who have qualifications from both sides.
"With the popularity of the internet, parties and even those from the mainland can directly contact me through e-mail, or even fly to my Hong Kong office, to seek legal advice, instead of knocking on my door in our Beijing office," So says. "The Cepa arrangement has also provided more opportunities for the mainland lawyers to better understand the practice of Hong Kong lawyers, who strictly follow rules and procedures and put aside personal friendship and links.
"We understand that opening the market for the legal profession is politically sensitive for any place, and the mainland is no exception … despite the treatment of Hong Kong lawyers as second-class citizens, the Law Society will continue to fight to further open up the mainland market.
"At the same time, it would benefit Hong Kong lawyers … to study mainland law and obtain a qualification there to prepare for opportunities to come."