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Hong Kong must carve its own place in China's future

Aftermath of protests should bring renewal of purpose to the city

| Hong Kong, Macao

Hong Kong's current unrest shows what can happen even in seemingly stable, relatively rich societies. The "winner-takes-all" creed of capitalism spread by globalization has left all social classes worse off except the super wealthy.

Discontent and fear, magnified through social media, have led to destruction and division. As the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China nears on Oct. 1 while the protests stretch into their fourth month, Hong Kong society is more conflicted than it has been in decades.

Once things do quiet down one way or another, the city can be reborn with a new narrative -- if its residents can reconcile with the fact that Hong Kong is a part of China and China is not an ogre.

There will undoubtedly be a new exodus from the city as was seen after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Reputedly, half a million people sought new homes abroad then, fearing what would happen after China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong from the U.K. after 1997.

Yet Hong Kong will survive and remake itself again as it heads toward the end of the 50-year time period covered by China's agreements with the U.K. and as China looks toward its next 70 years. Those who stay on in Hong Kong and new arrivals will know they have to work within the "one country, two systems" framework governing Beijing's oversight of the city.

The current crisis will inevitably bring an end to Hong Kong's historic legacy of "positive non-interventionism" which carried over from the colonial era. Successive city administrations have favored capital investment over higher recurrent spending.

As a result, the city has overbuilt physical infrastructure but underfunded social services, education, and public and environmental health. Wage growth, meanwhile, has significantly lagged education and productivity improvements and housing has become ridiculously unaffordable.

Hong Kong's failure to cushion residents from the side effects of capitalist globalization has helped fuel the city's anti-government protests although many see it as simpler to blame China's rising influence.

After the demonstrations, Hong Kong will need a new social contract to deliver a higher quality of life and improved health and well-being for the whole city.

Big companies will not be able to object to improved social protections, particularly a higher minimum wage. Beijing has already made clear to the city's property developers, whose owners are among the world's richest people, that they cannot keep hoarding land. Watch for news of government purchases of their holdings for affordable housing.

Hong Kong must also reform planning and building laws to catch up with Singapore and even the mainland on environmental performance. Building retrofits and management, as well as waste management and public sanitation, can become big businesses that benefit residents and create local jobs that contribute to improving conditions in the city.

A grand bargain on universal suffrage should be struck with Beijing, which already laid out its principles for electoral reform in 2014. A nominating committee would screen out candidates who have shown separatist tendencies.

Opposition parties should accept that while Beijing's guidelines fall short of their hopes for fully open elections, Hong Kong people do want to choose their own political leaders and this path will move society forward toward that goal within the limits the national government has set.

Hong Kong needs to reform its ossified civil service, too. Capability should trump seniority, such that promising younger officers can leapfrog others so Hong Kong can regain its "can-do" reputation. The most talented officers should be assigned to positions with regular community engagement. A planned administrative college should help to groom officials who understand national policies, many of which are more advanced than Hong Kong's, and have a global outlook.

The "localist" sentiments that have fueled the current protests could re-energize creative approaches to Hong Kong history, culture, literature, film, music and cuisine. There is a strong southern Chinese regional identity that could showcase a relaxed confidence in the "Chinese Dream" and boost the nation's global soft power.

Cooperation between Hong Kong, Macao and Guangdong Province can also enable the embryonic Greater Bay Area to become a leader in innovation, technology, research, management, administration and philanthropy.

Demonstration projects in advanced urbanization could make this region a national leader in fields including low-carbon urbanization, spurring the creation of jobs attractive to younger generations.

This is especially true against the background of the existential threat of climate change. Hong Kong and the Greater Bay could become a hub for developing decarbonization and climate adaptation technologies that serve the nation as well as benefit the world as China looks toward its next 70 years .

A Hong Kong that can continue to come up with new ways like this to demonstrate the value of its separate socio-economic systems would then be well-placed to seek renewal of "one country, two systems" come 2047. A city that can take inspiration from engaged younger generations can in turn inspire a nation and ensure its own future.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist for the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Institute for the Environment. She previously served as the Hong Kong undersecretary for the environment and as a member of the city's Legislative Council.

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