A model for China if promises are kept
Fifteen years ago, Hong Kong was making the final preparations for a journey into the unknown. Our city's return to China on July 1, 1997, was a source of pride, hope and celebration. It brought to an end more than a century and a half of colonial rule.
But there was also fear and uncertainty. Hong Kong became a dynamic and prosperous city under the British. What would the future hold as a part of communist China? Would our cherished freedoms, capitalist system and rule of law survive under the novel arrangements known as 'one country, two systems'?
Doomsayers predicted the PLA would patrol the streets, the June 4 vigil would be banned, the courts would become corrupt and expatriates would flee. These alarming scenarios have, thankfully, not occurred. Fifteen years on, our city remains vibrant and affluent. Our freedoms are intact and the rule of law survives. Rumours of Hong Kong's death were exaggerated. But the journey has been anything but smooth. Who would have guessed in 1997 that our first chief executive would resign early after a protest by more than 500,000 people and that his successor would end his second term amid allegations of collusion with tycoons? We have endured economic downturns and outbreaks of deadly viruses. Our city's ability to bounce back from such setbacks - albeit with help from Beijing - shows the Hong Kong spirit is still alive.
Yet, as we prepare to mark Sunday's anniversary, our community is ill-at-ease. Once again, there are fears that our freedoms are under threat and that our promised high degree of autonomy is being eroded. People are unsure whether Hong Kong will flourish as China's economic rise continues - or be marginalised. The influx of wealthy mainland shoppers and investors has boosted our coffers but left many in the community feeling insecure.
Core values must be safeguarded
On July 1, a new chief executive will take office promising change. Just as in 1997, there is hope but also uncertainty. Hong Kong has much to be optimistic about. Our city remains a unique part of China, ideally placed to benefit from the country's ongoing economic growth and increasing influence in the world. Further integration with the mainland is inevitable and should not be feared. But to maintain our special status, Hong Kong's core values must be safeguarded. The freedom of expression, freedom of the press, rule of law and protection of human rights are key components of Hong Kong's success. They are the means of achieving a fair, decent and tolerant society, one in which people want to live and do business.
Lessons must be learned from the last 15 years. The new political arrangements have not worked well. The chief executive lacks the legitimacy a popular vote would give him and has no dedicated support in the legislature. Lawmakers have just enough power to frustrate the government, but no hope of governing themselves. The people, denied a voice through the ballot voice, show their opposition in protests and court cases. Civil servants are afraid to take risks, lest they be blamed for blunders. The government is often on the defensive, lurching from one controversy to another and struggling to get things done. We are still waiting for universal suffrage, the 'ultimate aim' of democratic development promised by our constitution, the Basic Law. It is to be hoped that a more constructive, cohesive and efficient political system will emerge as part of the promised introduction of fully democratic elections in 2017 and 2020.
One of the promises made to Hong Kong before the handover was that it would remain a bastion of capitalism. We need to maintain our famous entrepreneurial spirit and business-friendly environment.
But success is not measured in terms of GDP growth alone. Not all have benefited from our city's prosperity. The wealth gap is wide, and growing. We have had big budget surpluses, sit on huge fiscal reserves, and see displays of wealth all around us. Yet the poorest in our community eke out a living in sub-divided flats and cage homes, struggling to feed their families. This is unacceptable.
Hong Kong remains a great city
No one can deny that leading members of our business sector play a crucial role in Hong Kong's economic success. But they have been given too much influence over policy-making and privilege, fuelling public anger over perceived collusion with the government.
We must strive for a more equitable society. The quality of life here must also improve. Hong Kong people deserve cleaner air, more green spaces, bigger apartments, and more time for recreation. Better policies on poverty, health and education are required.
Incoming chief executive Leung Chun-ying does not face an easy task, for all of these reasons, and is facing questions about his integrity before he has even taken up the job. Leung has signalled his determination to deal with the most pressing issues, including the wealth gap, housing, and the environment. He promises change for the better and deserves to be given a fair chance to show what he can do.
Hong Kong remains a great city. It still has an extraordinary life force, due largely to the dynamism and determination of the people who live here. The one country, two systems concept must be upheld.
If Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy is respected, our freedoms maintained, our rule of law safeguarded and universal suffrage finally achieved, our city can truly become a model for China's development.