As we mark the 30th anniversary of the Basic Law and reflect on the practice of "one country, two systems" in Hong Kong this month, the city is at its gravest juncture in contemporary history.
It is not only because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is turning the world upside down. With nations and cities resorting to lockdown to contain the virus spread, social and economic activities have slowed quickly. Economic recession is unfolding worldwide, threatening the survival of many industries.
Hong Kong is suffering its share of panic and uncertainties, but more damaging are its internal cracks due to the prolonged political confrontations since last June, which have eroded public confidence and weakened the economy even before the pandemic. Now, with further antivirus measures amid a recession, widespread job losses and company and shop closures will incite more social anger and conflict.
When a major economic crisis combines with political turmoil, the signs do not bode well for the prospects of "one country, two systems".
The two-system formula was meant to not only resolve the historical question of Hong Kong's return to China after 150 years of British colonial rule, but also foster a new mission for Hong Kong in China's modernisation. Should things proceed smoothly, there is no reason this unusual constitutional arrangement should not be extended beyond 2047.
However, since reunification, neither Beijing nor the local population has been at ease with the inherent contradictions and tensions between the two systems. This should not come as a surprise. Contradictions were part of the historical compromise. It demands mutual trust and accommodation, plus a sense of realism, for the political compact to work.
Grievances have grown on both sides. As the mainland becomes stronger economically, Hong Kong feels its identity and autonomy dwindling. Meanwhile, the mainland questions why many Hongkongers do not care about national security and identity as much as nationals of other countries.
The lack of progress in constitutional reform has dampened local aspirations for democratic self-administration. The partial opening up of governance, still dominated by an executive-led system inherited from colonial days, has not helped groom responsible politics among legislators and parties.
As hopes for universal suffrage evaporate, despair has turned into radicalisation and total alienation for a section of the populace, as shown by the 2014 Occupy Central showdown and the present political stand-off that is tearing society apart. Alarmed by the rise of separatist activism and suspecting a colour revolution conspiracy at play, Beijing has been tightening its political grip on the city.
This sense of an existential threat on both sides has worsened cross-border relations. In the heat of political polemic, the main protagonists are all hardening their convictions and stances. A vicious tit-for-tat cycle has set in.
In the wake of the anti-extradition-bill protests, the political landscape has been redrawn, as marked by the opposition's landslide victory in district council elections last November. The coronavirus outbreak has not helped to bring the government and people together in a joint fight. Deep divisions remain and hostility towards the mainland has grown further because of the virus first spreading from Wuhan.
A battle by our frustrated and distrustful younger generation against the nation will only add fuel to the fire, reciprocated by increasing mainland resentment towards a city considered ungrateful and being led astray by foreign forces.
Picking up the pieces to renew the "one country, two systems" compact, instead of letting it lapse by default, calls for a fundamental rethink. A deal must bring benefits to both, not just one side.
Returning to the basics, the need for continuing the "two systems" is as pertinent to Hong Kong as to the mainland. A constitutional status allowing the city to retain its autonomous and international character, with separate institutions, is still the best that can be hoped for by Hongkongers, provided the compact is mutually respected.
Although Hong Kong's gross domestic product now accounts for less than 3 per cent of the nation's, a far cry from almost 30 per cent in the early 1990s, its institutional strengths, professional standards, cosmopolitan outlook and global connectivity still make it important to the national interest.
Its value lies in its exceptionalism compared to other metropolises of China. Should Hong Kong fail, only Singapore stands to gain, not Shanghai or Shenzhen, and the national leadership knows that.
Hong Kong and the mainland are integrated in many ways, underpinned by a continuous interflow of people, goods, capital and expertise. Hong Kong would not be able to thrive on its exceptionalism without the opportunities and advantages accorded by such integration.
Unease in mainland-Hong Kong relations should be taken as a given. It can be moderated but not eliminated because it is part and parcel of the "two systems" design, a trade-off for both the national good and Hong Kong's future.
As we move into a more turbulent geopolitical environment driven by intense US-China rivalry, Hong Kong, as a global city flying the Chinese flag, will only face more external pressures. China may become more suspicious about foreign influence. Any thought of the city under US or international "protection", as championed by some radical activists, is illusory and leads nowhere.
If Beijing is keen to win the hearts and minds of most Hongkongers, as it was back in the 1980s, it has to acknowledge several hard truths. First, a great majority of Hongkongers dislike a government they have no part in electing. This calls for revamping the system of self-administration through political reform.
Second, a popular pro-democracy opposition with majority voter support cannot be casually treated as an enemy of the state, otherwise the system will never be stable. Political reconciliation, allowing for differences and disagreements, is needed to secure a new lease of life for constructive governance.
Finally, civil society is increasingly alienated from the establishment. If young people are expected to get more serious about national identity, patriotism has to be an inclusive notion, factoring in Hong Kong perspectives and values. The prospect of a more pluralist China should be embraced with confidence.
Both Beijing and Hong Kong should move away from past mindsets, prejudice and myths. A major historical choice awaits, with no less significance than that made for 1997.
Anthony Cheung is research chair professor of public administration at the Education University of Hong Kong and a former secretary for transport and housing (2012-17)
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