THIS WAS the city where two cultures converged, Asia's great
exception. For 156 years, this tiny, turbulent hub of traders and
deal-makers was the narrow conduit linking an insular Chinese
empire to a Western world it kept at bay.
But at 15 seconds past midnight on Tuesday morning, when the
Union Jack comes down, the British colonials sail away on the royal
yacht Britannia and a new Chinese regime assumes control, the
character of Hong Kong will change forever.
One minute, this frenzied city will stand as a triumph of
Western modernism and law, even if 98 percent of its residents are
Chinese. The next, Hong Kong will officially become a Chinese city,
subject to a set of rulers and mandates from a communist capital.
Never before has a socialist state acquired a freewheeling
capitalist economy. Beijing has pledged not to crush Hong Kong with
tanks or troops but to nurture it and to learn about individual
initiative and taking risks.
"There are no guides in history, no books to turn to," said
Tung Chee-hwa, the shipping tycoon handpicked by Beijing to guide
But how this great city is compelled to change and adapt, and
whether it prospers or fails, will test the legendary mettle of
Hong Kong's residents. What happens next in Hong Kong, in the grand
social and political experiment now taking shape, will also tell us
more about China than we have known.
Can Beijing accept Hong Kong's belief that the best government
is one that leaves the economy alone? Or will Beijing's need for
strict control, its fear of dissent and its lack of sympathy for
free expression undermine its success?
Will China's ambitions for its people and its growing demand
for resources eventually threaten its Asian neighbors? Can the
successful reincorporation of Hong Kong offer a peaceful path
toward reunification with Taiwan, China's prosperous runaway
province of 22 million? Can Beijing abide by international rules on
trade and arms control? Friend Or Foe
Friend Or Foe
And ultimately, will China prove to be America's friend or foe?
"A lot of people look to the future of China as what's at stake
here," says Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist at Hong Kong
Baptist University, who is monitoring the transition. "Hong Kong
has no choice but to go back, but China has no choice but to go
forward. Who changes whom? That is the question."
Hong Kong offers China its best ticket to the future. After
all, it is the dynamism of Hong Kong's entrepreneurial people that
has done the most to transform China since it unlocked its gates to
the world just 20 years ago. So far, Hong Kong and the company it
keeps - the Chinese tycoons of Asia - have funneled 60 percent of
total foreign investment into China, more than $220 billion.
"Everybody believes that a smooth return of Hong Kong is in
China's own interest," said Minxin Pei, a native of Shanghai who
teaches political science at Princeton University. "So if China
cannot handle even a process that is in its own interest, then it
is very hard to convince most people in the West that China can be
a responsible member of the international community."
China's rulers insist that the new "special administrative
region" will operate under a "high degree of autonomy" from
Beijing. The shorthand is "one country, two systems."
But do the communist rulers know enough not to mess with
capitalist success? Can they resist the temptation to slowly tear
down the British colonial supports that were crucial to Hong Kong's
dramatic rise - an unobtrusive government, an honest civil service,
an independent judiciary?
"If Hong Kong becomes a Chinese city," one tycoon said, "Hong
Kong is dead. It must remain a cosmopolitan city."
In the United States, China's basic intentions seem unclear,
its motives suspect. A new chorus of anti-China activists - from
the right and the left - condemns the Beijing government for not
improving human rights, for failing to protect intellectual
property and for forcing women to have abortions. …