In a year roiled by the Occupy movement in Hong Kong, raising questions about the future of the "one country two systems" model, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China "remains unswerving" in putting into practice the framework that governs Beijing's relationship with Hong Kong and Macau, and which it hopes will be applicable to Taiwan too.
But he said all sides must hold fast to the principle of "one country" and accept the authority of the central government, while respecting the differences in the "two systems" and the "high degree of autonomy" in the special administrative regions (SARs). Neglecting either is akin to "wearing a right shoe on the left foot and will lead to a series of missteps".
Mr Xi was speaking yesterday at the inauguration ceremony of Macau's new government on the 15th anniversary of its handover from Portuguese to Chinese rule, in his first visit since becoming China's leader two years ago.
But the speech was clearly meant for neighbouring Hong Kong's ears as well, coming five days after the end of the Occupy movement, the city's biggest political crisis since its 1997 handover.
For 79 days, protesters blockaded major roads demanding greater rights to directly elect their chief executive. The protest was also the culmination of rising tensions between the mainland and Hong Kong, including over perceptions that Beijing was increasingly interfering in the city's domestic affairs.
At the same time, the central government had clearly become uneasy over signs that it had yet to win over the hearts of Hong Kongers, especially the younger generation, and over the radicalisation of the pro-democracy camp.
All this cast some doubt on the execution of the "one country, two systems" formula in Hong Kong.
The brainchild of the late leader Deng Xiaoping, it was conceived to woo Taiwan but adapted for Hong Kong and Macau, promising "a high degree of autonomy", "Hong Kong/Macau people governing Hong Kong/ Macau" and "50 years of no change" under Chinese sovereignty. While the model has not gained traction in Taiwan, Mr Xi said in September that it should be the basis for cross-strait reunification.
Yesterday, he praised Macau - long seen as a more pliant SAR - for how the formula had "taken root in the hearts of the Macau people".
"If there is proper understanding of the 'one country, two systems' formula, and a focus on developing the economy, improving people's lives and cultivating a 'love country, love Macau' mindset, Macau will have an even more beautiful future," he said. There was no allusion to the city's nascent pro-democracy movement which yesterday staged protests calling for universal suffrage.
Instead, in what seems to be a warning for Hong Kong as well, Mr Xi said that Macau needs to be on the alert against "external forces' infiltration and interference" to ensure its unity. He also called on Macau to put at its forefront the teaching of`China's history and "patriotic education" for its youth to better understand the country's achievements.
Both topics are sensitive in Hong Kong. Beijing had accused foreign entities of being behind the Occupy movement, while a student-led protest in 2012 forced the introduction of a "national education" curriculum to be put on hold.
Separately, Mr Xi said the situation in Hong Kong has improved and praised the work of its chief executive Leung Chun Ying, Xinhua news agency reported.
In a meeting with Mr Leung in Macau, Mr Xi said the Hong Kong government and police had fulfilled their duties and that the central authorities would continue to support him.
This article was first published on Dec 21, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.