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Hong Kong - Stay Tuned

All the world was watching as Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control this week. Much of the world will continue to watch as Beijing works out a modus vivendi with the newly installed administration of Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee Hwa - and, more important, with a vibrant people who are used to being in charge of their own economic and political lives.

Does the handover by Britain signal the start of a new "Chinese century"? China has already shown a penchant for capitalist commerce, and the acquisition of Hong Kong could be a catalyst to speed that evolution away from the Maoist past. Hong Kong brings to China the administrative, legal, and financial know-how to launch its still low-level capitalism into much higher orbit.

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But will Beijing listen? Just how determined are China's Communist leaders to make sure the "one country, two systems" formula retains two systems - instead of allowing Hong Kong's 21st-century, information-driven system to leaven the whole of China? That system includes, of necessity, elements of democracy that remain anathema to the ruling party elite. The replacement of Hong Kong's elected parliament with one appointed by Beijing, and the promulgation of more restrictive rules governing assembly and free speech, are not positive signs.

But it's too early to assume they presage a reversal of Hong Kong's freedoms. The coming year, culminating in fresh parliamentary elections next May, will be telling.

Ultimately, the real test for China will not be whether it keeps its bargain with Britain and allows democracy to function in Hong Kong. The real test will be whether China proper, with its 1.2 billion people, can learn from Hong Kong the value of greater political and individual freedoms and erect its own structure of law and accountable government.

Outside observers, whether in Westminster, the US Congress, or Taiwan, will in the long run be reassured by nothing less.

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