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Monday, July 2, 2007

Toast to Hong Kong's amazing success

HONG KONG — China is to vigorous public debate and extensive civic participation as cats are to dogs, right?

If so, then what in the world possessed American Consul General James Cunningham to say — in public no less — that a prominent part of China "remains a model of Chinese society that observes the rule of law, follows free and fair market principles, allows unfettered entrepreneurial activity, and respects freedom and human rights, including religious freedom. Its political system is evolving, and public participation in civic affairs is growing."

Maybe there needs to be a U.S. Congressional investigation of this silly career foreign service officer, eh?

Or maybe we Americans ought to get off our high ideological horses and actually visit the Special Administrative Region of China known as Hong Kong and see for ourselves. That's right — it's part of China, it's nothing like Beijing, and it's doing just fine.

In point of fact, Cunningham, who is the top U.S. diplomatic representative here, and who is widely well-regarded, was right to say, as he has over and over again, that Chinese government policy toward the acquisition of Hong Kong from Britain on July 1, 1997, has been a stunning success, at least so far.

That policy, explicitly designed by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, is known as "one country, two systems."

Rough translation: Mainland ways remain the right ways for the mainland; Hong Kong ways are to remain the revered ways of Hong Kong. That promise, Cunningham says, "by and large has been observed."

It seems to me that the West in general doesn't give either Hong Kong or Beijing quite enough credit for this achievement. This is a terrible and unnecessary mistake. A relatively open and prosperous Hong Kong is not only in the American interest, it is in China's interest.

"After 10 years of Chinese sovereignty," Cunningham says, "Hong Kong remains the most open and developed part of China."

That targeted observation is presumably not lost on the mainland's leaders, some of whom may have come down from Beijing to visit Hong Kong as part of the gala celebration of the 10th anniversary of the handover.

Americans should be celebrating, too. Peace is almost always better than war (hasn't the Iraq debacle reinforced that?), and success is always better for all concerned than failure. Hong Kong, though home to a mere 7 million people, serves as America's 15th largest export market and houses 60,000 U.S. citizens, many employed in an astonishing 1,200 U.S firms having local or regional offices here.

Mere statistics do not tell the whole story. The Chinese government in Beijing, whatever else we may think of it, has not only talked "one country, two systems" vis-a-vis Hong Kong, it has done the walk. The results are in and are irrefutable: By one estimate, the total market capitalization of Hong Kong (i.e., what the market says it is worth) is more than three times higher than in 1997.

To be sure, all this could change this week. It's conceivable that the Chinese army garrison could come streaming out of its Hong Kong high-rise cloister and fill the streets with men and machine guns and spook the territory back into a Mao stone age. But this hasn't happened yet, and it won't happen, period. Why? Because the Communists manning the Politburo and State Council in Beijing may be tough and ruthless, but they are by no means especially dumb.

It does seem that the parallel implication for Taiwan, the independent little island off the east coast of China that is deeply divided about future political linkage with the mainland, is manifestly obvious. If "one country, two systems" has worked once, why not twice?

So let's hoist a glass to toast the 10-year experiment of the new China-led Hong Kong. Its success is good for everyone.

Success tells Beijing that the more it Hong Kong-izes itself, the better things will be on the mainland. Success tells the people of Hong Kong to be just a little patient about universal suffrage, but that some day it will come.

And it tells the United States that its policy of quiet, non-gunboat support for China's "one country, two systems" policy has been a stellar and bipartisan success for U.S. diplomacy in Asia.

Indeed, for that alone — for this one time at least when the U.S. has not used its big foot to step all over someone else's territory — let us raise yet another glass in gratitude, celebration and perhaps a little astonishment. Sometimes things do work out — so far at least.

UCLA professor and syndicated columnist Tom Plate recently concluded his seventh reporting visit to Hong Kong since May 1997. Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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