Pragmatic Presence: US Policy and Hong Kong's Transition

By Bereuter, Douglas | Harvard International Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Pragmatic Presence: US Policy and Hong Kong's Transition


Bereuter, Douglas, Harvard International Review


Douglas Bereuter is a member of the US House of Representatives and Chair of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

Perhaps the most daunting foreign policy challenge for the United States in the twenty-first century is to coax China into becoming a full participant in the international community. If Beijing practices self-restraint and the international community, including the United States, exercises appropriate diplomacy, the People's Republic of China (PRC) can become a responsible member of that community. Should Beijing's leaders and the international community fail, the consequences for international security, global tranquillity, and the 1.2 billion people living in China would be devastating. As the world's only remaining superpower, the United States has an important role to play in this difficult, but not exclusively American, task. For example, over a dozen countries are wrestling with China over the terms of its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

A more immediate and difficult challenge facing the international community is posed by Hong Kong's reversion to the People's Republic of China. On July 1, 1997, over 150 years of British rule ends and Hong Kong becomes a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. This reversion is unprecedented in its complexity, and the future is uncertain. Hong Kong, one of the world's most efficient economies, must become part of an emerging giant which has yet to integrate itself fully into the world economy and which has only begun to experiment with democracy, and then only at the village level.

The United States maintains a large and growing economic stake in Hong Kong; therefore, Sino-US relations almost certainly will be affected by US perceptions of the Hong Kong transition to Chinese rule. Additionally, the success or failure of the Hong Kong transfer will have a major impact on Taiwan and US support for Taiwan as this island responds to PRC proposals for unification under the same "one country-two systems" framework used by Beijing to accommodate Hong Kong.

Two Views of the Transition

Some US-China specialists, representatives of business interests, and others in the United States, Hong Kong, and China urge US policymakers to deal gingerly with the Hong Kong transfer. They note strong nationalistic feelings prevalent in China and the high degree of satisfaction among Chinese officials that Hong Kong is being returned to China. They warn that certain action by the United States, notably by Congress, or by other foreign officials, could be construed by China as illegitimate outside interference in China's internal affairs. Such actions could elicit responses harmful to the interests of Hong Kong and China, or to Sino-US relations.

These observers also suggest that US intervention appears unwarranted. Hong Kong's economy, increasingly tied to the vibrantly expanding Chinese mainland economy, continues to grow. Annual growth in the past few years has been five to six percent. Over the last decade, Hong Kong has moved from its rank of fifteenth to eighth largest trader in the world, and its per capita GDP has climbed from US$6,000 to US$23,800. With a population of only 6 million, Hong Kong's economy now equals one-fifth the GDP of mainland China with its 1.2 billion people. Along with this extraordinary track record, Hong Kong plays an increasingly vital role as a trade conduit and financial center for US, Chinese, and international economic and business interests. Under these circumstances, many believe that the change from British to Chinese sovereignty will make little difference. They argue that Hong Kong will continue to demonstrate strong economic growth, foster a friendly and supportive business environment, and provide an overall atmosphere that allows for an extension of current individual freedoms.

Adding to their attitude of confidence is the high level of attention devoted to Hong Kong issues by the PRC leadership, which is well aware of the high stakes relating to the success or failure of Hong Kong's transition. …

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