'We must stay committed to keeping a balance between adhering to the 'one country' principle and respecting the differences of the 'two systems',' President Hu Jintao said on Sunday on the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong's transformation from a British colony to a Chinese special administrative region.
This was a return to a theme he first sounded five years ago when he came to mark the 10th anniversary of the handover. 'One country,' Hu said then, is the prerequisite of 'two systems'. Clearly, he was saying that 'one country' trumps 'two systems'.
The emphasis was quite different from that of his predecessor, who spoke eloquently on the night of June 30, 1997 about the 'high degree of autonomy' that Hong Kong was to enjoy.
The shift towards a stress on the authority of the central government stems from the march by half a million people in 2003, which was triggered by proposed national security legislation. Beijing's rejection the following year of demands in Hong Kong for early universal suffrage emphasised the tension between Hong Kong and the central government. Increasingly, there are also conflicts within Hong Kong itself.
The context in which 'one country, two systems' operates has been changing. Thirty-three years ago, when Britain first approached China about the expiration in 1997 of the lease on over 90per cent of Hong Kong's territory, Beijing had a political problem. The country was just emerging from the 10-year Cultural Revolution and was on the verge of bankruptcy. But its new leader, Deng Xiaoping, would not agree to an extension of colonialism in China into the 21st century. Deng took back sovereignty over the British colony, knowing that rich, capitalistic Hong Kong could play a major role in China's economic development. So he agreed to leave things largely unchanged.
Today, China has become an emerging superpower. And it has ambitious plans for the future, plans in which Hong Kong can play an important role. For its part, Hong Kong has decided it must integrate economically with the mainland or risk being marginalised. This was reflected in Hong Kong's initiative to be included in the five-year plan, something Beijing was happy to accommodate.
Co-operation on the renminbi is a case in point. China wants to internationalise its currency, while Hong Kong wants the economic benefits of being the main offshore renminbi market. Neither is doing the other a favour.
In a way, this is probably what Hu meant when he urged the central government and Hong Kong 'to keep exploring new ways for advancing the cause of 'one country, two systems' based on the existing achievements'. He also issued a much-needed call for Hong Kong to be far-sighted so as to develop its role not only within China but in the world.
Hong Kong should not be the passive recipient of economic goodies from Beijing. Instead, it can pay its way by playing a role in China's economic development. This is a more realistic way of ensuring Hong Kong's future.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1