The initialing of an accord returning control over Hong Kong to China in 1997 can only be reckoned a historic turning point. It will officially end nearly 150 years of British rule in the colony - the culmination of the last major outpost of once-formidable British imperial authority in Asia, extending from the Indian subcontinent to Burma and over to the Pacific Ocean.
The changeover also underscores the longer-range historical retreat of European authority in South Asia, including the earlier withdrawals of the French and the Dutch, whose career bureaucrats and troops were once so prominent throughout the region. What must now be asked is whether the eventual British political pullback from Hong Kong also presages a pullback from the flourishing capitalism now found in Hong Kong and parts of East Asia, including Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. It is precisely that ebullient capitalism that has made the region the major growth area of the world economy during the past decade.
The answer regarding Hong Kong, of course, won't be fully known until later this century. The diplomatic accord in effect provides for one nation (China) and two economic and social systems (a communist system on the mainland, a free-market system in Hong Kong). Current Chinese leaders insist they will honor textual stipulations not to change the colony's economic and social system for 50 years after 1997. But will future Chinese leaders honor such promises? Many affluent Chinese in Hong Kong seem unsure, despite promises from both London and Peking. A number of businesses are now diversifying into companies elsewhere - far from Hong Kong.
An exodus of major corporations - and their top officials - seems certain, according to some economists.
The task for both China and Britain could not be clearer. Both sides need to use the months ahead, while the governments of the two countries are formally ratifying the accord, to allay the concerns of the 5 million people of the colony. In particular, the thousands of relatively well-to-do professionals who run the large banking, film, trading, real estate, and technology-related companies dotting the colony's skyscraper landscape must be reassured that they, and their descendants, will have a stake in a post-20th-century Hong Kong. If the professionals see no future, many can be expected to find ways of taking their wealth - and their expertise - elsewhere. That would be to the loss not only of Hong Kong, but of China, which needs the open door to the wider world of commerce and technology that Hong Kong represents.