Editor’s Note: This year marks the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the country. Over the past quarter-century, with its diverse culture and privileged location, Hong Kong has attracted many foreigners to settle down and build careers. In the third part of China Daily’s “Anniversary Talks” series, we put the spotlight on them to record how Hong Kong has changed their lives and how they have contributed to the city’s development.

In this article, Quentin Parker, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research, said the past 25 years has proved that the “one country, two systems” policy is an enactment of bold but pragmatic political thinking on the grandest of scales that works, and both strengthens and protects the city’s cultural legacy and future prospects.

The scholar, who has been in Hong Kong for about seven years, also expressed high expectations of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area’s future prospects. He envisioned that the cluster will be a more integrated special economic zone flourishing farther and wider, with people actively moving there for jobs, opportunities, family, and lifestyle between cities.

1. Why did you come to Hong Kong? How did you overcome the challenges and become who you are today? What have you managed to achieve in Hong Kong so far?

I was approached to apply for the job of head of physics at the University of Hong Kong, and after a rigorous selection process, I came out on top. I was happy in Australia, but in the end the challenges and excitement of this opportunity and the city of Hong Kong itself won me over. I believe the record will show I have acquitted myself well, especially in my role as director of the Laboratory for Space Research. I am also now a vice-chairman of the Orion Astropreneur Space Academy, an NGO that is striving to promote both STEM education and engagement with the burgeoning space economy here in the HKSAR. Also, I am a huge admirer of Chinese antiquities and cultural heritage, so Hong Kong feeds that interest too and was another pull factor.

2.  Could you share with us your memories about Hong Kong’s return to the country? How do you and the expatriate community here see the city’s return to the country and “one country, two systems”? Has “one country, two systems” had any impact on their way of life and work in Hong Kong?

I did not arrive in Hong Kong until March 2015 but I do recall the handover ceremony — watching it on the television. However, I first visited Hong Kong in the early 1980s and several times in the interim period until the handover. It was a grand and historic moment and an excellent example, I thought at the time, of a pragmatic, honorable and far-reaching fair solution to a post-colonial issue between a rapidly emerging world power and nation-state that had a past global empire. No war — no storming take over, but an exemplary and I would say unique political settlement. Now I have been in Hong Kong for 7.5 years; I have had the opportunity and privilege to live the Hong Kong dream as an academic at a global top-20 university. I have had the chance to make friends with a wide variety of expats and locals, and until the last two years, the comments and feelings from all have been almost universally positive about “one country, two systems” in action. There is no doubt that the social unrest and the pandemic and all its associated restrictions have inevitably caused anxiety and concern for many. Two blows like this, one after another, would be difficult to deal with at the best of times. Happily, with the new National Security Law for Hong Kong, the social unrest has finished, and COVID-19 restrictions are at last easing. The new national security law does worry many, and after teething problems I think the way forward for people is to see it in action longer-term so that confidence in it can grow through sensible, just and fair enactment of its provisions, so it is seen to work for the good of the HKSAR and not to its detriment.

3.  Since 1997, Hong Kong has seen a growing number of foreigners living and working in the city. The SAR remains one of the most attractive places for talents from all over the world. What is it about Hong Kong that has kept people coming here? What would you say is crucial to attracting talents to Hong Kong from around the world?

Until 2019 at least, Hong Kong was a veritable magnet for global talent, as I’m sure any investigation of immigration records from 1997 till then will show. I have been amazed at the number of French and Italian expats I have encountered since I arrived in Hong Kong and their growing local businesses — it’s certainly not just finance. Global talents are attracted by the high rewards, exciting dynamism, wonderful opportunities, low tax environment, respected regulatory framework, strong judicial protection, and top reputation in finance, business trade and transport. Hong Kong is a key global transport nexus and still a real gateway between East and West. There is no denying the unrest and pandemic have dented these attractions. I hope and believe this is short term and will rapidly reverse once real stability in travel and trade return as the underlying pull factors remain in place. However, I do not believe the HKSAR can be complacent and just expect things to return to normal once the pandemic is over. This is because some, like Singapore, have already benefited from our misfortunes and are pushing hard, while others are only too keen to try to grab as much of our trade, markets and talent as they can.

4.  The central government, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, has attached great importance to Hong Kong, helping the city recover from the 2019 social unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic. Why do you think the central government is attaching such great importance to Hong Kong? What role has the central government’s assistance played in the SAR’s efforts to overcome these daunting challenges?

I personally think it is great this city is receiving such support and interests from the mainland. One only has to look at the tremendous help offered in dealing with the fifth wave of the pandemic. I think this focus stems from the Chinese mainland recognizing the SAR’s great strengths as a global financial center of high reputation but also as an incubator of bright ideas as a business investment facilitator and leader that can be of broader benefit to mainland interests. Furthermore, I do not believe there would even be a Greater Bay Area miracle without first having Hong Kong. I also believe the mainland sees in Hong Kong how the “one country, two systems” process has been shown to work so effectively for most of the previous 25 years while protecting the unique way of life and culture of the Hong Kong people. Hong Kong, as a mirror to reflect the world’s best practices in trade, investment, fintech and many other areas like health, education, smart city thinking and public transport, can trial ideas and processes that could work well in the mainland too. Finally, Hong Kong and the mainland can show the world that the “one country two systems” policy is an enactment of bold but pragmatic political thinking on the grandest of scales that works and both strengthens and protects cultural legacy and future prospects.

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5.  The central government has introduced a string of favorable policies for Hong Kong since the city’s return to the country. Some of these policies are to help locals, and some are to facilitate Hong Kong residents studying, living and working on the Chinese mainland. What do you think of the far-reaching impact these policies have had on Hong Kong and its people? Have you and your profession or industry benefited too?

Eventual fuller integration into the mainland and the GBA especially is as inevitable as it is beneficial. This is because so much growth and opportunity will come from a region that is already almost as wealthy as the UK with a similar population spread across the 11 GBA cities. Integration does not mean everything has to be the same — quite the reverse. In multicultural global cities like London, Sydney and New York, there is integration into the overall system, but cultures and languages, cuisines and habits remain distinct and vibrant and can flourish and survive. During a process of integration, there are additional benefits that may be available to assist in the process and to help build trust and confidence in service delivery for better engagement in the overall process. Eventually, I believe transport to and from the HKSAR and the (rest of the) GBA will become almost seamless and second nature to tens of thousands of daily commuters. People will move for jobs, opportunities, family and lifestyle between the great cities of the GBA as a more-integrated special economic zone flourishes farther and wider.

6.  There’s no doubt that Hong Kong links with the Chinese mainland have deepened on all fronts since 1997. Has deeper integration between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland benefited you, your community and your profession or industry?

Yes. I visited the mainland more than 25 times between 2015 and 2019 before COVID-19 stopped everything. I was always amazed by the kindness, generosity, respect and sincere desire to collaborate that I encountered wherever I went. As a result of these visits, HKU was able to gain access for all HKSAR astronomers to Chinese Astronomical facilities when we signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Astronomical Observatories of China; became an associate member of the East Asia Observatory, giving HKSAR astronomers access to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii (the world’s largest single-dish submillimeter-wavelength radio telescope); became a partner in a lobster-eye X-ray satellite with Nanjing University (launched in July 2020); and built strong relationships with top mainland entities like the Beijing Institute for Space Mechanics and Electricity and DFH Satellite Co while also building a strong relationship with a Zhejiang University microsatellites research group that is partnering with us in a 6U MeV CubeSat for gamma-ray astronomy. Along with Dr Pablo Saz Parkinson at HKU, we have also won time on the Chinese FAST telescope — the largest single dish radio telescope in the world.

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7. This year, Hong Kong celebrates the 25th anniversary of the handover, and is also the halfway mark in implementing 50 years of “one country, two systems”. What about the next 25 years? Some people think that the policy will change after 50 years. How about you?

There was a recent announcement by a prestigious mainland expert that the “one country, two systems” constitutional approach for the HKSAR will continue beyond the original 50-year period. This has probably come as a pleasant surprise to many, but not to me. I anticipated this might be on the cards as a keen observer of geopolitics and for those that have an eye and predilection for more long-term strategic thinking. As I have reported previously, as a principle I think “one county, two systems” embodies a novel, pragmatic and stable path via a negotiated outcome that’s almost unprecedented in modern history as an enactment of pragmatic politics writ large on the global scale.

With the 25-year anniversary in July, the 2047 date has been playing heavily on the minds of many in the HKSAR. Only 25 years to go for some seems too close for comfort and raises concerns about their unique way of life being affected. This has fueled fear and foreboding. However, I believe this new announcement addresses these issues head-on and gives the Hong Kong people confidence and security. It should help convince them that their locally enacted Basic Law will be rigorously upheld, and their way of life, traditions and status protected robustly under law. This cannot be more important. So the prospects of an indefinite continuation of this paradigm beyond 2047 should provide some confidence about the future and a system that at a base level will preserve the Hong Kong way of life.