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Tsang Yok-sing, a likely candidate in 2017 elections for Hong Kong's top office, talks to TIME on Aug. 3, 2016, in the library of the China Club in Hong Kong
Liam Fitzpatrick

The British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, designed to retain the city’s freedoms and way of life within an authoritarian state — crucial to its status as a global hub of finance, trade and services.

In recent years, however, many Hong Kong citizens have grown to believe that Beijing has not kept its promise of “a high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong and is aggressively interfering in local affairs. They cite, among other instances: attempts to impose mainland security laws and “national education,” which Hong Kong parents and teachers regard as Chinese Communist Party propaganda; restricting the city’s head of government, known as the Chief Executive (CE), to only candidates vetted by Beijing and chosen by a small electoral college; the prosecution of Hong Kong booksellers of anti-China books — one of whom was likely renditioned from Hong Kong, thereby violating its constitution, the Basic Law; the new pledge of loyalty to Chinese sovereignty for the Sept. 4 elections for the legislature, which caused six candidates to be barred and sparked criticism of political censorship. The upshot: a fragmented society with frequent protests against Beijing, and an ever-widening gap of trust between Hong Kong and the mainland. Even a nascent independence movement has sprung up.

Many in Hong Kong say that the best person to heal the rift is Tsang Yok-sing, 69, outgoing president of the legislature. Though Tsang, a self-professed leftist, is a founder of the pro-Beijing political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, he is acceptable to a broad spectrum of democracy activists as a moderate politician who understands different points of view. On July 29 Tsang announced that he is willing to run as the next CE, to be selected in March 2017. (The current CE, Leung Chun-ying, can stand again but is deeply unpopular and seen by many citizens as overly subservient to Beijing.)

TIME’s Zoher Abdoolcarim, Aidyn Fitzpatrick and Nash Jenkins talked with Tsang on Aug. 3 about Hong Kong’s difficult relationship with Beijing, what he would do about it, and how he sees himself. Excerpts:

Is the election loyalty pledge part of a pattern of interference by Beijing to the point that “one country, two systems” is dead or dying? Is Beijing losing Hong Kong? Is Beijing killing Hong Kong?
Hong Kong and Beijing relations are caught in a vicious cycle. You refer to a number of incidents that happened after the handover. The net effect, or the combined result, of all these incidents, [is that they have] all worked to deepen the mutual mistrust, suspicion, between Hong Kong people and the central government. You ask: Is Beijing losing Hong Kong? Perhaps the Chinese leadership is asking the same question: Are we losing Hong Kong? Hong Kong people should know that they have the obligation to make their own law [for] national security; it’s their constitutional obligation. What’s wrong with national education? The younger generation in Hong Kong should learn more about their own country. Hong Kong schools should build a stronger sense of national identity among the younger generation. And then this constitutional-reform package — the Chinese leaders would think right from the first day: We told Hong Kong people, yes, the ultimate goal is universal suffrage for picking the Chief Executive after nomination by a nomination committee. The nomination committee has always been there in the Basic Law. So it is not the Beijing leaders who are breaking the promises. It’s the Hong Kong people.

But isn’t there a material difference between enacting national-security legislation on behalf of a sovereign power that is a democracy, and enacting national-security legislation on behalf of a sovereign power that is a one-­party state?
The Chinese leadership knew that Hong Kong people would be very sensitive about bringing the national [security] law to Hong Kong. That is why Beijing said, you should legislate your own, make a law that is acceptable to the Hong Kong public. But then Hong Kong people said, No, we are not going to do it. This is one of the contradictions in “one country, two systems” — the two systems are different. The core values. We know that. But you have your obligations — you can’t break away from China. Looking back over the past 19 years, there are fundamental conflicts in this whole idea of “one country, two systems” that we can only resolve by building up goodwill, understanding and a willingness to compromise. Unfortunately, things have happened that have pulled the two sides apart. [Hong Kong people have become] even more open, more and more liberal, even democratic. On the other hand, the Chinese government believed that after Hong Kong’s return to China, Hong Kong people would become more and more patriotic. It hasn’t turned out to be the case. This is our problem.

The spread of the independence movement — who is responsible? Beijing? The Hong Kong government? The current Chief Executive? How did we come to this?
We are witnessing a new political era in Hong Kong. Up to the very recent past, the Hong Kong political arena was dominated by people of my generation. All of us went through all the different stages running up to the handover and after the handover. We sat in on British talks. We took part in the Basic Law drafting and consultation exercise. We put forth our own ideas. Despite what happened [at Tiananmen] on June 4, 1989, despite the misgivings many people had then about the sincerity of the Chinese Communist Party in allowing Hong Kong to keep our own system, the transition went more smoothly than most people expected. The Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong was set up and all of us, even though we have different views about the Basic Law and about the final goal of universal suffrage in Hong Kong, we believe that upholding this “one country two systems” was the best way for Hong Kong.

Our generation understood that the British gave Hong Kong people a very high degree of freedom — we had a lot of freedom, but very little democracy. We were not electing our own government then. But it was a colonial government. So what would you expect other than a governor sent over from London? The younger generation, they have grown up in a place belonging to themselves. And they have been promised democracy, and promises about making Hong Kong a better place to live in. Giving the younger generation a brighter future. Improving people’s livelihood, and so on. They expect the government and the various political parties to deliver what they promise. And they have good reasons not to be satisfied with what they are getting. The Hong Kong public wants more freedom, more assurance of “one country, two systems.” [But] the Chinese go, You give Hong Kong people a free hand, what’s going to happen? We don’t know; things will go out of control. So they try to do something to prevent Hong Kong getting out of control. And then their so-­called interference is felt even stronger by Hong Kong people.

Is one party guiltier than another?
Both sides underestimated the difficulties. But if we want to ask which side is more responsible, then it is always the government side — the central government — because they have the power. It is the central government that formulates and modifies policies and implements those policies. In the first few years, [then Chinese leader] Jiang Zemin said on many occasions that the central government would never interfere in Hong Kong affairs. He said on many occasions that the central government had a lot of confidence in Hong Kong people looking after their own affairs. And then came this [national-security] legislation and a big [protest] march [on July 1, 2003]. That was the first turning point. That was a wake-up call to the central government: we can’t keep our hands off, we have to monitor the situation in Hong Kong closely and do whatever we should do when it is necessary. There was a very obvious change in the way the central government looked at Hong Kong.

What about those advocating self­-determination?
We should draw a line between that and independence. Many Hong Kong people would understand that — self-determination — as giving more say to Hong Kong as to how “one country, two systems” can move forward. China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong is not negotiable. If we accept the fact that Hong Kong must remain an inseparable part of China, then we can ask for more participation by Hong Kong people in this debate about our future.

If you were Chief Executive or had a senior role to play in the next administration, what would you do differently?
My view is very simple: political problems should be settled in a political way. We need political maneuvers, political operations, political skills. The Chief Executive and senior government officials should try to rebuild a constructive, working relationship with the various political parties, especially with the opposition parties.

The word that comes up about you — from people from both sides of the political aisle and people outside of politics — is fair.
You must be talking to English-speaking people. When I go in the streets, yes, I get very friendly approaches. At the same time, from time to time, someone will walk up to me and say, “Look, Tsang, you have messed up.” I’ve gotten very severe criticism from those who are supposed to be in my camp, the pro-E­stablishment camp, saying: “Don’t be so weak, you are too weak [against] the ­democrats.” We cannot allow ourselves to be so polarized, to be in two mutually exclusive camps.

Are you the person to bridge that gap between the camps, and to bridge the gap between Hong Kong and Beijing?
The gap cannot be bridged by one person. We all should change our mind-set. We must stop regarding one another as our enemies. If the central government and the Hong Kong government continue to believe that the only way for us to succeed in maintaining the prosperity and stability in Hong Kong, is to crush the ­democrats, is to destroy them, or if the ­democrats — or at least most of them — continue to believe that their archenemy in fighting for democracy in Hong Kong is the central government or the CCP, that they must fight against the central government, fight against the CCP — then we have no hope of making “one country, two systems” succeed.

So we need a healing figure.
Yes. The candidates in the next Chief Executive election must answer this question: How do you look at this divided society, polarized society — and how are you going to change that? If it is [just] the current Chief Executive [C.Y. Leung] running for a second term, we can hardly expect a comprehensive, in-depth debate. It would be very unfair to say that he has never had the interest of Hong Kong people at heart. [But] if C.Y. were going to rule Hong Kong for another term, he wouldn’t change the ways he has acted, especially his relations with the various political groups.

Are you optimistic about Hong Kong’s future?
In these 19 years since the handover, things have not gone in the way that many of us hoped they would. [But] I would say optimistic in the sense that I still believe both the central government and most Hong Kong people still want to make “one country, two systems” successful. Up till now I don’t see any indication at all that the central government is prepared to abandon this and say it’s not working, that we’re going to change the system in Hong Kong. [Otherwise], Hong Kong would simply become another Chinese city like Guangzhou and Shanghai.

A lot of people feel there’s already direct rule by Beijing in Hong Kong.
That’s unfair. Despite the surge in young followers of independence, most Hong Kong people understand that going independent, that getting away from China, is no way out for us. So we do have common ground — Hong Kong people and the central government. However, perhaps Beijing and Hong Kong people have rather different ideas about what a successful “two systems” arrangement should look like. I have friends from Beijing — Chinese officials — to them, keeping the Hong Kong system simply means [that] the stock exchange goes on working, people go to dinner parties, to the balls, and the horses keep racing — the Hong Kong style of life. But one very important part of our system is what you call the core values … If you try to take away the core values, change these values, then the system no longer exists. We have to make the central government officials understand this.

When you say you talk to your friends on the mainland — do they get it?
I believe they understand what I’m talking about, but whether they agree or not — I’m not sure. When we talk about the core values … [it’s] Hong Kong people living here in safety and comfort, never having to fear that anything would happen to them which would not happen in the system they believe in. For example, the government putting itself above the law. Or people being persecuted without committing any illegal act. All the freedoms we have enjoyed. Rule of law, including the independent judiciary. And respect for the individual — any lawful citizen can lead a decent life.

Do you consider yourself first a Hong Kong person? A Chinese person? An international person?
I’m Chinese first of all. Can’t get away from it. But I admit, when I’m traveling in other parts of the world, when people ask me my nationality, I will always say Chinese, but I will always complement that with “from Hong Kong.” And people will say, Hong Kong Chinese very good, Taiwanese Chinese very good, mainland Chinese no good. It is a sad fact for us. But that is the perception. How can you blame Hong Kong people, especially the young generation, for trying to distance themselves from mainland Chinese when this is the case?

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