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Hong Kong Puts China on a Roll

The power of Beijing rises as British return a rich enclave. Handover marks a historic shift

After all the pomp of a royal British good-bye to Hong Kong yesterday, the circumstances of Communist-run China ruling over a capitalist enclave of 6.3 million people began to sink in.

Many analysts saw a curtain rising on a Chinese century - symbolized by the People's Liberation Army marching into Hong Kong - with the West in relative decline after centuries of dominance in Asia.

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By absorbing one of the world's richest financial and trading centers, China has been catapulted into the top ranks of global economies. It now has foreign-exchange holdings second only to Japan's and a double-digit economic-growth rate double that of any Western nation.

As symbols of a British empire that once spanned continents were removed in Hong Kong, Chinese icons of power and nationalism took their place. The ones creating the most anxiety were put up by the muscle-flexing Chinese military, which entered only hours after the official handover.

When London went to war with Beijing more than 150 years ago to enforce its right to sell opium to the Chinese masses as a way to afford Chinese goods, Britain had one of the most powerful navies and shipping fleets. The victory that gave it Hong Kong by treaty marked the advance of Britain and the decline of imperial China.

But now, with Britain in retreat and Beijing's Communists embracing capitalism, China is an emerging force on the global stage. "You only have to compare the size and strength of each side's military to understand why England agreed to return Hong Kong to China," says a university lecturer in Beijing.

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"Just as the loss of Hong Kong reflected the weakness of China's imperial forces 150 years ago, so its handover is the result of China's growing might," he adds.

American and Chinese scholars are talking about the widening influence of "Greater China," a loose economic grouping of labor-rich China, financial powerhouse Hong Kong, and technologically advanced Taiwan, in addition to Chinese in other countries.

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"Hong Kong's handover is certain to speed up the 'Greater China' phenomenon," says David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University in Washington.

"Some already speak of Greater China as the world's next superpower," he says, and adds that even if Taiwan remains outside of the People's Republic, its ongoing economic integration with China and Hong Kong is likely to strengthen. "Early in the 21st century," says Mr. Shambaugh, "the combined gross domestic product of Greater China may surpass that of the European Union or the US."

And with economic supremacy comes the potential to create the world's most advanced military and China's ability to dominate Asia.

"While many Asian countries fear the prospect of a rearmed Japan, they are also apprehensive about China's designs in the region," says a senior South Korean official. The United States is widely viewed as a benign power, he says, and any reduction of American forces in Asia could set off an arms race to counterbalance Tokyo or Beijing.

For centuries, China's influence was unrivaled in Asia, and it had one of the most advanced civilizations on earth. Leaders as far away as Washington are wondering whether the reemergence means Greater China is again heading toward a peak of power.

Hong Kong's return to China nearly completes the retreat of Western colonial powers from Asia, and continues a decades-long trend. The proportion of the world's territory controlled by Western governments has plummeted from 48 percent following World War I to roughly half that figure today.

While English-speakers now account for less than 8 percent of the world total, Chinese-speakers make up more than twice that amount, writes Samuel Huntington in "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order." He predicts Chinese civilization could become the globe's strongest cultural force.

To be sure, English will remain the international language of diplomacy and commerce for the foreseeable future, and the West's dominance over the Internet and global TV is unlikely to be eroded soon. The West remains on the cutting edge of computer, space, and weapons technology, and still leads finance and trading systems.

China's rise has shown few signs of abating, but there are many potential economic stumbling blocks on its road to catching up with or overtaking the West.

Its leaders also face tremendous problems in reasserting control over Taiwan, which they regard as a renegade province. But the economic and cultural integration of a Greater China has continued despite ideological barriers and a recent military standoff between Beijing and Taipei.

China's state-run media are heralding the return of Hong Kong as the dawn of a new Chinese century, and are using the event to fan the flames of nationalism.

Yet Harvard University Prof. Tu Weiming says, "While there is a renewed pride in Chinese civilization, that does not necessarily translate into increased support for the [Beijing] government."

Many scholars discount notions that Beijing's growing economy and nationalism are likely to fuel an expansionist drive beginning in Asia.

"The loss of Hong Kong marked China's transformation into 'the sick man of Asia,' " says the Beijing lecturer. Yet, he says, no one is seeking revenge against Britain and other Western powers that occupied parts of China during its century of weakness.

"Hong Kong's return represents the rejuvenation of China and its standing on the global stage," he says. Beijing wants first and foremost "to be treated as an equal by the world players."

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