When Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 after more that 150 years of colonial rule, there were hopes that the financial hub would eventually expand its freedoms, autonomy and prosperity under the formula of "one country, two systems", and even inspire reform across mainland China.

But now, 20 years on, there's deepening concern about Bejing's tightening grip on some of the city's cherished freedoms.

Since the "Occupy" street protests in 2014, the ongoing battle for democracy and autonomy has increasingly polarised society and divided the city. Protests and clashes between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps have become commonplace, and tensions between mainland China and the former British colony are rising.

Jasper Tsang Yok-sing is the founder of the city's biggest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and is a former president of the legislative assembly, Hong Kong's parliament.

Al Jazeera spoke to him about the handover and the rift between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Al Jazeera: What were your thoughts in 1997, as you saw the Union Jack being lowered and the Chinese flag being raised?

Tsang Yok-sing: I think, like most other people in Hong Kong, we were more optimistic than we should have been.

We took a rather simplistic view: Now that the British are going away, we are masters of our own house, so let's get up and do something for Hong Kong.

So, I think, that was the feeling among most of us, whether pro-Beijing, pro-democracy, anyone. 

Al Jazeera: Now, 20 years on, society seems more divided, particularly politically.

Tsang: Our society has always been divided, as I see it.

The community in Hong Kong has always been divided.

Tsang Yok-sing

You know, back in the 1960s, there were the leftists, and then there were the nationalists as well. I mean, the Guomindang supporters were fighting against each other.

The community in Hong Kong has always been divided.

Al Jazeera: Has China stuck to its side of the "one country, one system" agreement?

Tsang: Well, let people point out which promises that China made have been broken by the Chinese government. Please.

Al Jazeera: Well what about booksellers who have disappeared? What about tycoons who vanished in Hong Kong? They were allegedly taken by Chinese agents.

Tsang: Were they? Well, at least one of them openly said in Hong Kong, in a press conference, that it was not so, that he went to the mainland voluntarily. Believe him or not. Right?

Other things happened outside Hong Kong, not in Hong Kong. So we don't know. I believe the only indisputable fact about the booksellers incident is: no one in authority in China has come out and said, 'Look, we have the power to come and grab people in Hong Kong'.

There's no proof [that China is behind the disappearances] or there is no reason that we should believe that anyone in authority in China has deliberately broken the rules in "one country, two systems".

Al Jazeera: You've said that you want to try heal the rift between Hong Kong and China, so how can it be healed? 

Tsang: What I said, I believe, was I wanted very much to see the rift bridged. Not that I, as an individual, think that I have the power, I have the ability [to heal the rift].

'One country, two systems' is China's policy of Hong Kong. The policy will continue as long as the Chinese government, and as long as the Chinese Communist Party believe it is good for the country.

Tsang Yok-sing

My basic belief is, Hong Kong people must realise that "one country, two systems" is China's policy of Hong Kong. It is the Chinese Communist Party's policy on Hong Kong.

The policy will continue as long as the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party believe that it is good for the country.

Al Jazeera: Many people have said that you would actually make a great chief executive ... you tick all the right boxes. What went wrong?

Tsang: Ability and competence aside, no one can become a really good chief executive of Hong Kong unless he or she has the trust of both Hong Kong people and the central government.

My way of thinking does not agree very much with the officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs.

Al Jazeera: If there was a free election in Hong Kong, universal suffrage, isn't it the case that actually the pro-Beijing candidate would probably win?

Tsang: That's what I believe.

Al Jazeera: So why doesn't China allow it to happen, because probably their candidate would win?

Tsang: The Chinese leaders, the officials looking at Hong Kong affairs, say how can you tell?

How can you tell? I mean it seems inconceivable today, that anyone coming from the pan-Democratic camp can be elected a chief executive. But you know, politics are unpredictable.

Al Jazeera: Twenty years ago, you very rarely heard people openly calling for independence in Hong KongYou hear that now, admittedly from a minority. Can you understand why people are calling for independence?

Tsang: I think the most obvious reason is, of course, that young people, some young people are losing their confidence in "one country, two systems".

It is this worry, this fear, that their lifestyle, their way of life in Hong Kong, is going to change in the near future.

Source: Al Jazeera News