The economic downturn triggered by the Asian financial turmoil in 1997 had begun to take its toll on public confidence by the following year, and signs of simmering discontent towards the Tung Chee-hwa administration had emerged. Less than two years after Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty under the principle of 'one country, two systems' separation - not integration - remained the mainstream view here with regard to our relationship with the mainland. Amid tension in the political landscape, and against a background of economic pessimism, the Court of Final Appeal's ruling on January 29, 1999 allowing right of abode to some 1.65 million mainlanders - in the government's estimate - came as a bombshell. The government faced a dilemma. To allow such an influx risked putting enormous pressure on public services and resources. With the impact of the economic downswing beginning to be felt, there were real concerns about a further decline in standards of living. But the government also knew that any moves to tinker with the court ruling would be a blow to judicial independence and cast a shadow over 'one country, two systems'. It would be even worse, however, if the mainland legislature, the National People's Congress Standing Committee had to step in to solve the domestic problems facing Mr Tung and his government. The government decided to seek an interpretation from the Standing Committee on Article 24 of the Basic Law - the right of abode provision. Looking back, former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang remains adamant that there was no better alternative. 'Our first duty is to serve the interest of the Hong Kong people. Any responsible government cannot ignore the possible impact of the court ruling on Hong Kong society,' said Mrs Chan, who chaired an interdepartmental group on the social, economic and demographic implications of the abode ruling. 'Based on our own estimate, we came to the conclusion we would not be able to cope with a massive inflow of people from the mainland. Hong Kong is a small city. The burden on education, health and social welfare services would be enormous.' Mrs Chan dismissed any suggestion that the government's stance stemmed from discrimination towards mainlanders. 'We made the best possible estimate [on the number of eligible persons]. We had no doubt about the figure. But, even today, we don't know whether that figure is accurate,' she said referring to the government's estimate of 1.65 million. 'In the last 10 years, the nation's economy has grown in leaps and bounds. Living conditions have improved significantly. Many [eligible] people may have chosen not to come here. There's no way we can dispute the estimate figure one way or the other. What we can say is that we did not make up the figure.' Mrs Chan said the government was aware of the negative implications on Hong Kong's autonomy and judicial independence, and criticism that it had lost the moral high ground on the issue. 'But, by and large, society was not totally against it,' she said. 'There was considerable support for the government decision. People understood the rationale behind the decision. It was the measure of last resort.' Asked if it could have been done better, she said: 'I don't think so.' Former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a key figure in the handling the issue, said the court ruling was a bombshell for the government. 'The ruling not only drastically increased the number of children eligible [for right of abode], it also said that once the Immigration Department had completed the verification, these children, and many adults, should be allowed in as soon as possible,' said Mrs Ip in response to written questions from the South China Morning Post. 'This would put an end to the well-established queuing system under the one-way permit system agreed with the Chinese side. If there was no queuing, Hong Kong could be flooded with a large number of immigrants from the mainland, putting a lot of pressure on the job market and the demand for social [and] educational services,' she said. Mrs Ip said it would be speculative to suggest now whether there were better alternatives. 'All of us who worked very hard to resolve the social, economic and immigration fallout of the [Court of Final Appeal] judgment thought that we were working in the best interests of the Hong Kong people. 'Hong Kong's unemployment rate was high at that time, and did get higher. I think the course of action adopted by the government was no doubt a disappointment to right-of-abode seekers but it had the broad support of the community,' she added. Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, who sits on the Executive Council, said there might have been alternative solutions, including administrative measures, but the government's decision to seek an interpretation from Beijing was understandable. 'It is quite typical that civil servants will envisage the worst scenario when assessing the implications of the ruling so that they won't get blamed if the worst comes to the worst,' he said. 'Public sentiment remained unstable at that time. People were fearful of the scenario of Hong Kong being flooded with mainlanders. The government panicked. 'If the government had had the guts to say that qualified mainlanders could come any time, the number of people who actually came might not have been that many as the economy had already grown bad,' said Professor Cheung, who is also president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education. He believed Beijing did not want to get involved in the controversy. That view is shared by Cheung Chi-kong, executive director of the One Country Two Systems Economic Research Centre. Professor Cheung said it was vitally important that Hong Kong solved its internal problems on its own. The recent plea by investors in Lehman Brothers minibonds for the central government to intervene to resolve their dispute with banks reflected a 'get help from Beijing' mentality, he said. Cheung Chi-kong said the fact that, since the abode issue, Beijing had only had cause to interpret the Basic Law twice - with regard to the length of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's first term in 2005 and universal suffrage in 2004 - was evidence that the central government preferred to stay out of Hong Kong's affairs. 'Hong Kong people are pragmatic. They understand the practical need of each case. Public reaction would have been quite different if the Standing Committee had acted in a more aggressive manner [in exercising its power of interpretation], he said. Democrat legislator Cheung Man-kwong said there was strong resistance among locals to a mass influx of mainlanders, which he attributed to a sense of superiority among Hongkongers which pervaded after 1997. 'Among our supporters there are a certain number who hold strong views against the communist regime. They were opposed to the idea of accepting the migration of mainlanders,' he said, adding that, as a party which supported the rule of law, the Democrats supported the case of claimants and opposed reinterpretation. If the Democrats paid a price for supporting the abode seekers, several leading barristers gained plenty of political mileage from their crusade in support of the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Ronny Tong Ka-wah, chairman of the Bar Association at the time of the ruling, and close colleagues including Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, Audrey Eu Yuet-mee and Alan Leong Kah-kit gained prominence from the right of abode episode and the controversy over Article 23 in 2003. Ms Eu won a Legislative Council by-election in 2000, while Mr Tong and Mr Leong won geographical constituency seats in 2004. The 'Big Four' went on to play a key part in the formation of the Civic Party in 2006. It has since emerged as one of the two mainstream forces in the pan-democratic camp. Cheung Man-kwong said the right of abode issue should be seen in perspective as coming at a time of great change. Back then, discrimination against mainlanders was common. Now, in contrast, local schools are actively trying to lure students from Shenzhen. 'The dividing line of politics across the border has become blurred. The influence of the nation's policy on the development strategy and policy of Hong Kong has become apparent. Even in the appointment of Executive Council members, the mainland factor has been given more weight,' he said. 'From a historical perspective, many political, ideological differences have been resolved in the process of economic development. If we could turn the clock back, we would abandon our political bias and adopt a more tolerant attitude towards the mainland. 'Ten years on, Hong Kong people, including myself, realise more clearly our economic and political fate is inseparable from that of the mainland and that we should honestly reflect on the past and cope with the changes ahead.'