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Opinion

The sun is not yet setting on Hong Kong

City should reinforce its value to both Beijing and the world

Despite the West's negative narrative, Hong Kong has not lost its positive spirit.   © Kyodo

Hong Kong finds itself in a new game in which it needs to consider the outstanding opportunities and demanding challenges it faces with an open mind. Over the past 150 years, the city has experienced many ups and downs but it has repeatedly played whatever cards it has been dealt exceptionally well. Can it continue to do so?

Twenty-one years after the resumption of Chinese sovereignty, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region seems stuck. Many Hong Kong people are concerned about the status of their beloved city within China: Is it losing its favored role as a window into the country for the world?

Mainland Chinese continue to ask what privileged Hong Kong can do for the nation. The rest of the world stands by to see whether Hong Kong can reinvent itself.

Hong Kong is indeed privileged. It is protected by a constitutional framework that preserves essential elements of the city's previous way of life under British colonial rule. The legal system and the market economy remain institutionally entrenched. Hong Kong can also conduct its own external affairs around the world in a form just short of formal diplomacy. These are privileges Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities can scarcely dream of.

Still, according to a prevalent Western narrative, this once vibrant city is steadily becoming just like any another Chinese municipality. The current contending geopolitical shifts, animated by the rise of China as a world power, have added fresh stimulus to this negative story. This, though, is a story shaped by a Western view of Hong Kong's value as tied to its ability to thumb its nose at Beijing.

Declared bellwether signs of slippage include a diminution of freedoms and slow progress toward full democratic rule. A small but vocal minority has begun calling for secession from the Chinese state. Others advocate self-determination. Some have annoyed Beijing by linking with Taiwanese independence activists or calling on American politicians to help.

This is all taking place at a sensitive time when China is most concerned about explicit moves by the U.S. to constrain its development with trade sanctions and hardball diplomacy.

Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. In this context, Beijing's main message to Hong Kong is that the maintenance of national unity and territorial integrity are crucial concerns. To Beijing, the constitutional guarantee of Hong Kong's "high degree of autonomy" is real. Hong Kong should be just as politically stable and economically prosperous as it was under British rule.

However, the city's promised freedoms cannot be used as a sword or shield against the interests of the Chinese state. Beijing's long-standing concern is that Hong Kong could be used as an "anti-China" base.

Hong Kong thus must pay attention to issues it did not need to under the British. Britain's national interests were not played out in Hong Kong while China's key interests are comparatively central here.

Britain knew how to be careful about this. Hong Kong can learn from that British wisdom; the city needs to be clearheaded about Beijing's deep sensitivity on fundamental issues.

Only Hong Kong can create its own story that makes sense of its past, explains the present and gives a believable yet inspirational picture of the future. Hong Kong must draw deeply from both its Chinese and its international heritage. It should continue to pursue excellence in how it does things in the public and private sectors, both commercial and nonprofit. It must also focus on what China needs today to continue on her journey of modernization and rejuvenation.

Beijing patently values Hong Kong for what only it can contribute to the project of national betterment from within. The return of Hong Kong is cherished by Beijing as a pivotal indicator of closure on what it sees as some 200 years of national humiliation.

What, though, does the rest of the world most want from Hong Kong? Realistically, what it still provides so well: a remarkably efficient place to domicile the widest range of activities, stably anchored by a rule of law regime of great integrity.

Hong Kong owes much to Chinese traditions of hard work and modesty. It also owes much to a cosmopolitan experience through its time as a British colony. It continues to play a vital part in China's re-engagement with the world. All said, when you stand back and take a measured look, Hong Kong is not doing badly at all.

The old British Hong Kong narrative can inform but not constrain the development of the new Hong Kong story, which has to turn on a constructive vision of the present and the future. We do not underestimate how intensely the special administrative region will be tested but based on its track record, Hong Kong is well-equipped to work energetically both for the betterment of China and to maintain its own special status within the People's Republic.

Many have tried but few have ever made their fortune betting against Hong Kong. Circumstances today are, yet again, different from before. But the signature, "can-do" collective DNA shared by Hong Kong people remains robustly intact.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist for the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She previously served as the Hong Kong undersecretary for the environment. She and Richard Cullen are authors of the new book "No Third Person: Rewriting the Hong Kong Story."

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