When China's Communist leaders took over Hong Kong in July 1997, they guaranteed the enclave could maintain its capitalist system and lifestyle well into the 21st century.
But the Basic Law that regulates Hong Kong's ties with China contains two important but overlooked loopholes that could lead to the region quickly coming under Communist rule or martial law.
Hong Kong's constitution says that if the Chinese Congress determines Hong Kong has entered a period of turmoil "which endangers national unity or security," Beijing may declare a state of emergency and apply communist laws in the area.
Yet Xiang Chunyi, who heads the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee of the Chinese legislature, says: "I cannot envision this article ever being invoked."
While that statement may reassure Hong Kong's 6 million residents, the Communist Party's past treatment of another "autonomous region" of China could bode ill for Hong Kong's future.
AFTER the Chinese Army marched into Tibet in 1950, Beijing signed an agreement to share power with the Dalai Lama's theocratic government and to preserve Tibet's Buddhist way of life. But when Tibetans staged mass protests against Chinese rule 40 years ago this week, Beijing tore up the agreement, killed thousands of demonstrators, and emptied Tibet's monasteries.
In a recounting of the attack, the party-controlled People's Daily on March 10 referred to the 1959 crackdown as an "epoch-making democratic reform ... that stands as a glorious moment in the 20th century's development of human rights."
Hong Kong's Basic Law also says the region's Beijing-appointed head has the power to call on the local People's Liberation Army "for assistance from the garrison in the maintenance of public order."
During a wide-ranging interview, Congressman Xiang pales when asked whether the PLA would ever be used to suppress protests in Hong Kong as it did in Tibet 40 years ago or in Beijing in 1989. "The army will never be used to stop peaceful protests in Hong Kong," he says emphatically. "We realize that such an act would create a furor on the international stage."
While ruling out the possibility of China forcibly imposing Communist rule in Hong Kong, Mr. Xiang also says there is little chance the socialist mainland will eventually form a democratic federation with the capitalist territory. "Look what happened to the federations of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia," he says.
Yet a junior member of China's National People's Congress disagrees. "Hong Kong has a pledge [from China] that it can maintain its capitalist system and move toward democracy over the next 50 years," says the lawyer, who asked not to be identified.
"Many younger government officials hope that, by the middle of the next century, China will be so similar to Hong Kong that the two can form a full-fledged democratic union."