The oft-used epithet, "a borrowed place on borrowed time", once spurred Hong Kong to make the most of opportunities. Though destined to become part of China in 1997, it flourished while under British rule as a top trading, transport and financial centre. With a mature legal system and a sound bureaucracy, confidence was high and property values soared. These came down with a thud after sovereignty officially passed into China's hands, but they have since bounced back.
Now the guessing game is about the prospects of the city three decades from now, when its second phase of borrowed time expires. Will the capitalist system, way of life and autonomy it now enjoys survive beyond 2047, when China's pledge to keep these in place expires? That's an important question but the larger poser is: Will Hong Kong have a future that will improve its people's lives?
Having its own mini-Constitution, laws and administration, and keeping English as one of the official languages, the city became a hub for corporations seeking to benefit from its economic links with China. Now, however, the investment gateway and financial centre is seeing competition from Shanghai; and its port is facing challenges from deep-water rivals in China which are closer to mainland industrial centres. Even so, Hong Kong's value to China might remain high, as a channel for international capital, human resources, technologies and expertise.
President Xi Jinping's visit to Hong Kong, to mark the 20th anniversary of its return to China, was an indication of the importance that is being placed on the political experiment China refers to as the "one country, two systems" model. With a high degree of political, economic and social autonomy kept intact, the strategists hope Taiwan might come around to accepting it as a possible means to reunite with China down the road.
Troubles have arisen, however, because the handover has also led to "one Hong Kong, two sentiments", as the Washington Post put it. Unfortunately, many blame the model for the economic and social ills that now afflict Hong Kong. The truth, however, is that it failed to keep abreast of innovative change evident on the mainland, and it didn't do enough to moderate capitalist fervour with social welfare. Rather than dwelling on their political differences, Hong Kongers owe it to themselves to collaboratively revive the city's vibrancy, as a part of the greater China economy. By focusing on inclusive growth and social mobility, and by pulling people together to systematically address chronic housing and demographic problems, Hong Kong could become a shining model in its own right. Further, by connecting with the rest of the world, Hong Kong could help China to evaluate international practices and standards with an open mind. But a city at odds with itself is unlikely to earn credibility on the mainland.