Hong Kong's political elite is watching US election campaigning as keenly as any American politician - its future could depend on the outcome. The reason goes beyond the reality of the special administrative region and the United States having close financial links and into the realm of personal friendships. Essentially, it means Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa may visit the White House more often than the official record shows, while Democrats share more than passing ideological ties with their American counterparts. No matter whether Republican President George W. Bush gets re-elected or his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, takes office, there will always be a little extra time for Hong Kong. If economics alone were involved, such an approach would make sense. Hong Kong is America's 14th-biggest overseas export market with US$13.5 billion in goods shipped last year. American direct investment to the end of 2002 totalled $35.8 billion, more than 1,000 US firms are located here while Hong Kong is home to about 50,000 American citizens. With the Hong Kong dollar pegged to its American counterpart and the city's future livelihood so dependent on trade between the US and China, economic ties are solidified. There are also strong cultural and educational links and broad co-operation between the two governments. Whoever wins the election will be bound by the 1992 US-Hong Kong Policy Act, which sets out the basis for the relationship through protection of human rights and promotion of democratic institutions. For leaders like Mr Tung and Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming, the election means a little more than that. The chief executive has been on friendly terms with the Bush family since the mid-1970s, when President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, was America's second pseudo-ambassador to China. In 1996, four years after the senior Bush left office, Mr Tung had the former leader's wife, Barbara, launch one of the ships of his family company, Orient Overseas Container Lines. The ties have extended from the elder Bushes to their children and the top echelons of American political society. Despite the relationship, the US State Department has kept a critical eye on Hong Kong. Mr Lee is a frequent visitor to the US, where he meets senior pro-democracy figures. While he has not met the Bushes, he has been the guest of Democratic former president Bill Clinton several times since being invited to the White House in May 2000 for advice on China's joining of the World Trade Organisation. The lawmaker said US and Hong Kong ties would remain close no matter which man won the election. 'The US did go to the extent of enacting an act of Congress because of Hong Kong,' Mr Lee explained. 'We all know that US foreign policy emphasises democracy and human rights and Hong Kong is very important when it comes to this as we are the only city in China which still has both.' Senator Kerry affirmed his interest in ensuring Hong Kong attains full democratic freedoms in answers to questions submitted by the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao Daily. He accused Beijing of blocking Hong Kong's democratic aspirations and promised that, if elected, he would raise the matter with mainland officials. 'Beijing has had a mixed record with regard to Hong Kong's political autonomy and rights as guaranteed under the Basic Law,' Senator Kerry wrote. 'Last year, Beijing stymied Hong Kong's movement towards universal suffrage for the selection of the chief executive and the legislature. I believe China's recent moves are cause for concern, which I will address as president.' Hong Kong has not been directly mentioned by President Bush or Senator Kerry during the election campaign. It will, however, be affected by whatever policies they may take towards the American economy. With US budget, current account and trade deficits at record or near-record levels, analysts have expressed concern at the impact on trade, interest rates and the US dollar. David O'Rear, chief economist with the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, said whoever was elected was going to face a weaker American economy next year. This, coupled with interest rate rises and a slowdown in growth on the mainland, would batter Hong Kong. 'When China and US trade with the world are added and graphed against Hong Kong's gross domestic product, there are few deviations,' Mr O'Rear explained. 'If the US and China are having a good year, we're doing great - unless, of course, there's something like Sars. If either has a poor year, we start to feel it. If both have a poor year - which looks likely next year - we get hit hard.' He believed the main difference between the candidates was that Senator Kerry would have to deal with US debt, while President Bush has said the deficits were not important. Money-minded Hong Kong people will be closely watching the steps taken. They may include a cutting back of US imports from China, as Senator Kerry promised, action against American companies which outsource goods and services to China. The chairman of Republicans Abroad in Hong Kong, Jeffrey Blount, did not have as gloomy an outlook. 'A second Bush term means a continuation of the best US-China relations in recent history,' he said. 'That means more free trade and more rational engagement between China and the US. Hong Kong benefits from the spillover of the positive trade relations.' But Democrats Abroad in Hong Kong chairman Michael Ceurvorst said President Bush's rhetoric did not tally with what his party was doing, including on issues like Iraq and freedom and democracy. But he doubted whatever policies either candidate implemented 'would have a significant impact' on Hong Kong. Legislator Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Long Hair, dismissed such sentiments, describing President Bush as a 'warmonger' and Senator Kerry as a poor campaigner. 'The problem of US politics is obvious,' Mr Leung declared. 'The whole system is corrupt and flawed if guys like Bush and Kerry can run for election and have a good chance of winning.' City University of Hong Kong professor of political science Joseph Cheng Yu-shek had a less negative outlook. 'Hong Kong people know little about Kerry, but there is also some resentment against Bush because of his unilateralism on issues like Iraq,' Professor Cheng said. 'In general, they are concerned about who will contribute most to continued American prosperity, which is good for Hong Kong and trade. In this regard, they tend to favour Bush a little much.'