Failure to achieve universal suffrage in 2017 would deal a serious blow to Hongkongers' confidence in the "one country, two systems" formula, Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing has warned.
"If we can't forge a consensus for the 2017 chief executive election, I can't see that it could be done in 2022 or 2027 - or even 2047 - as the voices of radicals in Hong Kong would gain the upper hand and Beijing's stance would get even tougher," he said.
Tsang also said Hongkongers should be aware of the possibility that state leaders may rethink the city's very autonomy if they believed the situation here had degenerated to an extent that it threatened national security.
In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post yesterday, he said attitudes of Hongkongers and the central government had hardened since the release of the white paper in which Beijing asserted its "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong.
The Beijing-friendly politician spoke a week after the July 1 march. Organisers estimated 510,000 people took to the streets while the police put the largest number of marchers at any one time at 98,600. A study commissioned by the Post estimated that 140,000 people took part.
Tsang said a substantial number of people had marched because they misunderstood the white paper issued by the State Council last month, although he believed 90 per cent of them had not read the full text of the controversial official document.
"The central government issued the white paper because it considers some views expressed during the political reform consultation obviously deviate from the Basic Law," he said.
"Beijing sought to reassure Hongkongers it was not tightening its policies towards Hong Kong. Yet many people voted in the unofficial referendum on political reform and joined the march in defiance of the white paper," the Legco chief said.
"This would only add to Beijing's fears about the situation in Hong Kong and [cause it to] toughen its stance.
"The most worrying development in the past few weeks is both Beijing and Hongkongers falling into a vicious cycle that is not conducive to narrowing differences on electoral reform."
Tsang, a leading moderate in the pro-establishment camp, has been seeking consensus on universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive election.
"If we can't achieve universal suffrage in 2017, it will seriously deal a blow to Hongkongers' confidence in 'one country, two systems'," said Tsang, who was founding chairman of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong.
Tsang said the path of "one country, two systems" was quite precarious and there was a need to strike a "fine balance".
He pointed to the report delivered to the Communist Party's national congress in 2012, which stated that the main goal of Beijing's policy towards Hong Kong and Macau was to "uphold China's sovereignty, security and development interests".
Hong Kong's prosperity was crucial in 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed under the "one country, two systems" formula, Tsang said.
But "nowadays our country's economy has been developing rapidly".
He went on: "We Hongkongers must ask ourselves whether Hong Kong's contribution to our country outweighs the trouble we cause.
"If we don't … at least set Beijing's mind at ease that the situation in Hong Kong won't endanger national security, the new generation of state leaders may rethink whether 'one country, two systems' has really brought benefit to the country."