As Hong Kong marks 20 years under Chinese rule next month, its former No. 2 official Anson Chan urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to ensure the territory's democratic freedoms are protected as promised under the "one country, two systems" principle.
The city's economic prosperity cannot be divorced from its freedoms, said Mrs Chan, who was Hong Kong's top civil servant as chief secretary from 1993 to 2001 under successive British and Chinese governments.
When Mr Xi visits Hong Kong on July 1 to mark the milestone, he must assure the city of its unique role as a "super-connector" between China and South-east Asia, she added.
"Hong Kong remains an economic entity in its own right, and not simply in parallel or in tandem with China's growth," Mrs Chan said yesterday at the 23rd International Conference on the Future of Asia, organised by Nikkei Inc. "But Hong Kong can only play this role if its full potential can be realised under 'one country, two systems'.
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"It is only by leaving Hong Kong alone, by pushing forward on democratic reforms, that allows Hong Kong to continue to perform its unique role vis-a-vis the rest of China."
Hong Kong was returned by Britain to Chinese rule in 1997 with promises of wide-ranging autonomy under the "one country, two systems" formula.
But a nascent independence movement has emerged, especially since the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, after Beijing ruled out direct elections for the territory's leader this year amid economic pressures and income disparities.
Mrs Chan's message at the forum was echoed by economists Fred Hu, chairman of the Primavera Capital Group, and Xiao Minjie of SMBC Nikko Securities. "The freer Hong Kong is, the more prosperous and dynamic it will be as a financial centre," Dr Hu said.
Hong Kong is the "best and most efficient" conduit for China to become a global player, said Mr Xiao.
Mrs Chan, who was highly regarded and outspoken during her time in government, slammed what she deemed "increasingly blatant interference" by Beijing. Top Chinese official Zhang Dejiang warned last month that Hong Kong's autonomy should not be used as a licence to challenge the central government's authority.
Mrs Chan said China should loosen its grip, and ensure separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
China should allow Hong Kong the universal suffrage it could have been granted since 2007, she said. But it is now a "goalpost that seems to be farther and farther away".
Mrs Carrie Lam, chief secretary from 2012 until January, was elected Chief Executive in March by an Election Committee stacked with Beijing loyalists after being apparently endorsed by the central government. She will take office on July 1.
Said Mrs Chan: "Despite the fact that in Hong Kong there is a qualified electorate of 3.4 million people, only 1,200 are deemed capable of electing our chief executive.
"I don't have the vote, and many others do not have the vote."
She warned that if China fails to give Hong Kong the autonomy, its goal of reunification with democratically ruled Taiwan will be a "pipe dream".
"What primarily defines a country is not its economic might or military might, but how its leaders treat ordinary citizens of the country," she said.