Among the leading fears of the people of Hong Kong when it comes to the political future of the territory is the idea that the former colony will be reduced to “just another Chinese city”.
One way for Beijing to achieve that end, as well as “genuine reunification” with China, is to merge Hong Kong with neighboring Shenzhen across the border in Guangdong Province.
Rumors were rife throughout Hong Kong’s transitional period – the years between the 1984 signing of a Joint Declaration and the July 1997 handover – that as well as Hong Kong, the future Chinese special administrative region (SAR) could also encompass the 1,991-square-kilometer mainland city of Shenzhen.
Files declassified by the United Kingdom National Archive show that in 1992, London conducted a study of the legal implications should Beijing impose such a merger after 1997.
Contrary to the prevailing view in Hong Kong, the conclusion of the study was that such a merger would not constitute a breach of the 1984 Joint Declaration, in which London agreed to return its colony to Beijing provided that post-handover Hong Kong could operate with some autonomy.
The only caveat from the legal experts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was that Hong Kong could no longer be accorded preferential treatment in trade and business if it were to be merged with a mainland Chinese city.
London believed that enlarging the SAR to bring in Shenzhen would not contravene its deal with Beijing to return Hong Kong, as long as Beijing could uphold its “one country, two systems” constitutional arrangement for the new SAR.
The backdrop of the merger talk was a stalemate in the colonial government’s negotiations with the provincial authorities of Guangdong, which exerts jurisdiction over Shenzhen, to decide the exact demarcation of the boundary.
Also, the legal status of the New Territories, 952 square kilometers of real estate leased from the Qing dynasty in 1898 for 99 years, that makes up the bulk of Hong Kong’s landmass, was not mentioned in the Basic Law, the Beijing-decreed constitutional document for the new SAR.
One consideration that might appeal to Beijing would be that fusing Hong Kong and Shenzhen into one city would ensure easy wins for pro-Beijing candidates in local elections.
It was also said that in the early 1990s some Shenzhen residents and local legislators campaigned avidly for such a merger as Hong Kong’s living standard was head and shoulders above the rest of China.
Yet one wonders whether people in today’s Shenzhen, a burgeoning metropolis of 14 million that in the last two decades has given Hong Kong a good run for its money, would now fancy such a merger.
Shenzhen’s gross domestic product grew exponentially from 120 billion yuan in 1997 to 2.24 trillion yuan (US$325 billion) in 2017, and the economic output of the technology boomtown that is home to Tencent, DJI and Huawei is poised to surpass Hong Kong as early as this year.
Shenzhen’s stellar advancement versus Hong Kong’s relative stagnation in the post-handover years has prompted some observers to question Hong Kong’s economic relevance to China.