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, Richard Cullen, a visiting professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, said he feels “at home” in his 25-year “worthwhile” life in the city.

He said that with a series of fundamental legislative changes introduced into the HKSAR since 2019, the foundations for the continued positive operation of the “one country, two systems” principle are in very good shape. He is confident that the principle will help the city cope with challenges and difficulties likely to arise over the next 25 years.

File photo of Richard Cullen, a visiting professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong. (PHOTO / PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

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 first came to Hong Kong in late 1991 to take up a position in the new Law School at the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong, which is now known as the City University of Hong Kong.

I was surprised by how easy it was to adapt to living in Hong Kong. It was very different in so many ways to Melbourne, where I had come from. Yet it was so straightforward to settle in. Everything worked so efficiently — public transport, services, shops, taxis and so on. And it was such a safe city — I had never before lived in a large city that was so safe to go almost anywhere, at all times.

The fact that I felt so at home, right away, helped greatly in dealing with challenges.

I have established myself in Hong Kong so that I am encouraged to express my views on a range of matters. I find that living my life in Hong Kong has given me a true feeling of living a worthwhile life — and I cannot ask for more than this.

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” any impact on their way of life and work in Hong Kong?

My memories are now many and varied, after living here for over 25 years. As I have read more about the history of Hong Kong and the country, I can feel a deeper connection to Hong Kong — and to the experience of Hong Kong in the country.

Richard Hughes, a renowned Australian, Hong Kong-based journalist from some decades ago, wrote in his book about the city, Borrowed Place — Borrowed Time, in 1968, that “Hong Kong is China”. He said this on page 1. As I have lived in Hong Kong, I have come to understand what Hughes deeply felt. He clearly — and aptly — foresaw the eventual return of Hong Kong to the country.

“One country, two systems” has not all be “plain sailing” — yet it has, overall, proved to be a remarkably original idea that has worked exceptionally well for the city — and China — based on any balanced assessment. It is also a highly engaging constitutional experiment that is fascinating to study.

The policy has facilitated the transition of the city from British Hong Kong to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region uncommonly well.

Hong Kong is always changing, in my experience, and the policy has had a major, positive impact on shaping this process of continuous change — and especially the changes that were preordained by the approach of July 1, 1997.

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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?

A very good friend from Toronto in Canada visited Hong Kong for the first time about 15 years ago. He was here for about a week. As he left to catch the Airport Express MTR to the airport to depart from Hong Kong, he turned to me and said, with uncommon enthusiasm, “Richard, this is a fabulous city!”

If you really enjoy city living, it is very hard to beat Hong Kong, in my view. So a primary attractive aspect is that it is a marvelous place to live — provided you do enjoy big-city living. Next, because of its geography, and its role, for almost 200 years, of being China’s primary internationally linked city, it has offered outstanding work and career opportunities. 

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?

Managing Hong Kong as the first SAR within the country has presented many challenges — and regular difficulties. What is genuinely sure is that the central government will not allow the city to be used as a base to undermine the stability of the HKSAR and the country. But, beyond this now very clear bottom line, the central government has a powerful commitment to seeing that Hong Kong thrives — as the SAR — drawing on its remarkable East-West strengths within the country.

There is great steadfastness in supporting Hong Kong. Stress tests including massive political upheaval in 2019, have been addressed by maintaining outstanding political impulse control — while working on intelligent, longer-term remedies to maintain the stable and healthy operation of “one country, two systems”.

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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 on Hong Kong and its people? Have you and your profession or industry benefited too?

The range of central government policies designed to assist Hong Kong is very great and is always being developed. The COVID pandemic has plainly placed limits on implementing a number of such policies over the last 2.5 years.

But the policies are in place and they are having a fresh, positive impact. We can expect to see an increasing number of Hong Kong “pioneers” leading the way by adapting successfully to careers in the mainland — and creating “footsteps” or guidelines that many others can follow.

We will need time to see how well these policies work to assist both the city and China.

Managing our way into a safe and secure post-COVID world across China is a major challenge, but this is a process that will deliver very great benefits over time.

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?

Closer integration with the world’s largest economy (based on PPP metrics) has certainly benefited Hong Kong very much. In the US they once used to say: “What is good for General Motors is good for America.” We can surely say today that: “What is good for China is good for the HKSAR.”

Without the country, there would be no modern Hong Kong, as we know it. Despite the current highly contested geopolitical atmosphere, China continues to offer stability, careful planning and exceptional long-term growth prospects. And the HKSAR is a small but fundamental part of the remarkable, positive, rise of China.

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7. This year, Hong Kong celebrates the 25th anniversary of the handover, and it 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?

Following the radical, required fundamental legislative changes introduced into the HKSAR since 2019, including the enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong and the improvement of electoral systems, I believe the foundations for the continued positive operation of “one country, two systems” are in very good shape.

Many challenges and difficulties will likely arise over the next 25 years — especially externally — but I am confident that the policy will cope with these.

I look forward also to future generations enjoying the benefits of the policy’s operation within the HKSAR, well beyond 2047. I agree completely with a recent observation that “Hong Kong has always come out on the right side of history.”