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Wanted: Realism - and Wisdom - on Hong Kong

"God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other."

This prayer comes to mind when I think about the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese control. Thus far, more courage (or at least bravado) than wisdom has been demonstrated both in Beijing and among Beijing's many detractors. Fortunately, the man shouldered with the responsibility of making the transition work in order to assure future serenity, Tung Chee-Hwa, has demonstrated both courage and wisdom.

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Mr. Tung realizes that there are several things that cannot be changed. First, China will regain sovereignty over Hong Kong effective July 1, with all the benefits, responsibility, and authority included. He also realizes that this fact will not change the desire of the people of Hong Kong to continue enjoying the economic and political freedoms and benefits they have enjoyed in the past. China may have the power to deny these freedoms but it cannot change the people's hopes and aspirations.

Tung has received much criticism in the Western press and among his local detractors for being more concerned with making Beijing happy than with assuring Hong Kong's future serenity. This overlooks the simple fact that the former must be accomplished if the latter is to be realized. Tung recognizes that Beijing is as eager as he is to accomplish a smooth transition and prove the validity of its "one country, two systems" formula; the political and economic stakes are enormous. This is why China, in 1984, signed a Joint Declaration in which it willingly gave up some of its sovereign rights by promising, in general terms, to preserve Hong Kong's then-existing social, economic, and political structures. The 1990 Basic Law was aimed at institutionalizing these unprecedented concessions.

Enter Gov. Christopher Patten, the last British leader of Hong Kong. (Those who criticize the method by which Tung was "elected" conveniently ignore the fact that no one in Hong Kong had a vote in selecting Governor Patten.) The Chinese claim, not without some justification, is that Patten violated the spirit and intent of the 1984 agreement in his attempt to ensure that the people of Hong Kong would have greater freedom in the future than they enjoyed under British rule in the past.

The Chinese decision to disband the current dramatically altered legislature and void some portions of the 1992 Bill of Rights and other civil liberties laws (promulgated without close consultation and over Beijing's complaints) is seen by Beijing not as a violation of the 1984 agreement but as an attempt to return to the agreement. This fact is turned on its head by many US pundits, who falsely accuse Beijing of violating the 1984 agreement. It also seems clear that Patten takes great delight in infuriating Beijing - an action that plays well in the press back home but does little to protect the interests of the people he will soon leave behind.

The 1984 Joint Declaration and 1990 Basic Law are the standards by which Beijing has agreed to be judged as it assumes control of Hong Kong. They might not be what Martin Lee and other local democracy advocates desire, but they represent a significant improvement over life in the rest of China and a mutually agreed starting point. As we enter the final countdown, the initial focus should be on insisting that China live up to these mutual understandings.

Let me stress that I am no PRC apologist. During a recent Beijing visit, I was accused of a "cold war mentality" after cautioning Chinese colleagues to address Hong Kong aspirations and Western concerns. I noted that if tens of thousands of US citizens and expatriates were placed at risk, or if Beijing were to brutally overreact to local protests after July 1, the US would have little option but to respond in a manner that would derail recently improved Sino-US relations.

I also noted that there were those in the US and elsewhere (Taiwan independence advocates come to mind) who would like nothing better than to see reversion go poorly, since they place greater value on their political causes than on future Sino-US relations or the fate of the people of Hong Kong. Heavy-handed Chinese actions would play into their hands, to China's (and Hong Kong's) detriment.

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Beijing must realize that, whatever it thinks of Martin Lee and Christopher Patten, it cannot change the desire of the people of Hong Kong for the freedoms they have enjoyed the past five years. Beijing's standard excuse - that reversion is "an internal Chinese matter" - merely inflames the situation.

Conversely, politicians in Hong Kong, the US, and elsewhere need to focus their attention on agreements China has already pledged to honor and rally behind the man with the awesome responsibility of keeping Beijing happy and protecting the freedom and prosperity of his people. If Hong Kong is to enjoy future serenity, greater wisdom must be exhibited by all who are involved, or wish to involve themselves, in the reversion process.

* Ralph A. Cossa is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based foreign policy research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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