Hong Kong is losing its competitive edge and will be "swept downstream if it does not forge ahead", warns Beijing's man in charge of Hong Kong affairs.
Zhang Dejiang, No 3 on the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, is by far the highest-ranking figure to voice such concerns.
But one observer believes Beijing is trying to divert public attention from current political controversies over patriotism and universal suffrage.
Zhang sounded the alarm at his first meeting with a political grouping from Hong Kong since taking charge of the Communist Party's leading group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs.
"Every country in the world is trying to get out of the shadow of the global economic crisis," he told a 31-strong delegation of the Business and Professionals Alliance in Beijing yesterday. "Hong Kong's competitive edge is weakening and will fade away if the city does not put its focus on economic development."
Quoting Deng Xiaoping's warning that "development is the only hard truth", Zhang said: "Only when the economy continues to thrive will livelihoods improve. Everything else is empty talk. Like a boat sailing against the current, it will be swept downstream if it does not forge ahead."
Without elaborating, he said "deep-rooted conflicts in economic development" had begun to emerge in the city.
Zhang's comments came on the heels of a similar warning by Zhou Bo, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, in the city last week.
Professor Chan Ka-keung, secretary for financial services and the Treasury, disagreed that Hong Kong was losing its edge. "The city's advantages are in our own hands," Chan said, citing the legal system and financial market as examples. "[The economy] depends on ourselves after all, but we have the necessary conditions to reach new heights."
Alliance chairman Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen said he saw Zhang's remarks as a reminder rather than a warning. Leung quoted him as saying the coming three years would be crucial.
Leung took aim at the current debate on electoral reform, saying: "The political feud is hindering our competitiveness."
Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said Zhang wanted to shift the public focus from political reform to the economy.