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Smooth Hong Kong handover lifts China's image

handover July 15, 1997
Web posted at: 11:31 a.m. EDT (1531 GMT)

From Hong Kong Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Relations between the United States and China have been plagued by sharp differences on many issues, from human rights to arms proliferation to trade. One of the most potentially volatile questions in recent weeks has been Chinese policy toward Hong Kong, the former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule on July 1.

But so far, the handover has gone remarkably smoothly, and observers believe that relations between the two countries could benefit.

Albright

Barely two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was at the center of controversy, when she decided to boycott part of the Hong Kong handover ceremonies. Albright stayed away from some official celebrations to protest China's dissolution of the territory's democratically elected legislature.

The move highlighted fears that Hong Kong's fate could become a major new sore point in a long-troubled U.S.-Chinese relationship.

"Hong Kong was really a landmine or flashpoint for the evolution of Sino-American relations," said Professor Steven Goldstein of Smith College. "A mistake or some other outburst during the handover could have been very serious for the ongoing effort to improve relations."

But the handover went smoothly. From Chinese leaders to Hong Kong's new Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to democracy activists in the streets, all the key players showed remarkable restraint. And the pattern has continued since then.

protesters

Despite tougher regulations, the new government has allowed demonstrators to protest without police interference. Pro-democracy activists are still appearing in the local media. And the economy continues to boom.

At a time when China policy remains a controversial issue in the United States, especially with allegations of a Chinese connection in the U.S. campaign financing scandal, the untroubled handover has provided a big boost to those in Washington favoring better ties with Beijing.

"The smooth transition will enable those in the United States, including those in the State Department, to manage relations with China with less interference from hard-liners who have nothing but bad things to say about China," said Professor Robert Ross of Boston College.

Indeed, if Beijing's restrained approach towards Hong Kong continues, it could contribute to a significant overall shift in Western perceptions of China.

"If China really demonstrates a willingness to tolerate Hong Kong roughly as it has been," Goldstein said, "that will do a huge amount to change the image of China that had been previously cha