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Protecting Hong Kong's future

How many of the world's great cities have outlasted empires, wars, or the passage of centuries and maintained their political and economic importance? Some quickly come to thought: London, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, Shanghai, and Cairo.

The question is hardly without interest these days, as Britain and China continue to shape the political framework for returning Hong Kong to China in 1997. For the fact is that Hong Kong, by any measurement, would have to be judged one of the truly important global cities of our own time. Thanks to the current British legal, political, and social framework of the colony, as well as the industriousness and innovativeness of the 5.5 million people that make up Hong Kong itself, the community has become a leading financial, trading, cultural, and commercial center for Asia.

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Chinese language films made in Hong Kong are seen throughout the Pacific. Consumer goods assembled in small factories, or crowded family quarters, are purchased around the globe, including the United States. Hong Kong banks play a crucial role in underwriting the dynamic economic prosperity of East Asia - a region that has been leading the world in economic growth throughout much of the 1970s and '80s.

Many concerns remain to be resolved regarding the ultimate status of Hong Kong, including civil aviation and the nationality of local residents. Diplomats will address these and other issues when negotiations reopen in Peking next Wednesday. So far as the joint talks that have just ended, progress was made. Hong Kong will presumably retain much local autonomy from China after 1997, although the mainland will exercise authority over defense and foreign affairs. The colony will retain the British legal system. And, according to the British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, China will leave the capitalist economic system in place for at least 50 years after the transition.

Will such promises, however codified, reassure the people of Hong Kong, many of whom are apprehensive about the eventual changeover? Surely the prayers of people of goodwill everywhere should help diplomats reach a mutually satisfactory solution to the enormous human drama now taking place with Hong Kong. Given the resourcefulness of its people, Hong Kong should long have a prosperous, and certain, future.

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