TOKYO -- Anson Chan Fong On-sang, former Hong Kong chief secretary under British rule, said Tuesday China can use the territory as a testing ground for democracy and that Beijing must not meddle too much in its affairs to ensure stability and prosperity.
"We've always been a testing ground. For example, we've been a testing ground for China in experimenting with financial reforms," Chan told Nikkei Asian Review on the sidelines of the annual Asia Future conference hosted by The Nikkei.
"In the same way, we hope if China has the confidence to trust Hong Kong people with 'one man, one vote,' we'll demonstrate by our actions that democracy works. It's the best way of ensuring stability and prosperity and in that way, China can use Hong Kong as a model to experiment with the introduction of democracy within mainland China as a whole," she said.
Chan's comments came ahead of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China.
To facilitate the transfer of the former British colony, China under the rule of former strongman Deng Xiaoping promised to govern Hong Kong under the principle of "one country, two systems." This meant granting the city the right to maintain its own political and economic systems and elect its own top leader and parliament for 50 years until 2047.
However, over the past decade, Beijing has gradually tightened its grip on Hong Kong while refusing direct elections in the territory. All came to a head with the so-called Umbrella Movement in 2014 when thousands took to the streets for weeks demanding universal suffrage.
But Chinese officials continue to largely ignore Hong Kong's cry for free elections and democratic rule. As expected, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Beijing's favored candidate, was elected as the city's chief executive earlier this year.
Chan said that Lam's success would hinge on whether the new leader can help protect the Hong Kong lifestyle and freedoms.
The former Hong Kong No.2 warned that the financial hub's autonomy must be maintained to also help China's growth.
"You need China to leave Hong Kong alone," she said. "We can only maintain our strength and our contribution to China and the rest of the world if China sticks rigidly to 'one country, two systems.'"
But Chan, a moderate, was careful not to overstep the mark. She dismissed the budding independence movement in Hong Kong, saying it was only supported by a small group of people.
"Independence will never happen, China would not allow it. By insisting on this, we are simply giving more ammunition to Hong Kong's detractors and for China to clamp down even harder on Hong Kong," the politician said.
"The best way forward is to drop this education for independence, continue to press for democratization and universal suffrage, that is genuine 'one man, one vote,' and to demonstrate to Beijing that Hong Kong can only continue its contribution to our country's growth and liberalization if 'one country, two systems' remains intact," she said.