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No matter what the pundits, politicians and experts say, everyone is only guessing about how this bold experiment will fare. All the opinions boil down to basic attitudes: you're either an optimist or a pessimist. Optimists start from the premise that it is so much in Beijing's interest to make Hong Kong work that it is bound to keep its promises. As Frank Ching, senior editor and columnist for the Far Eastern Economic Review, writes, "China did not spend two years negotiating the Joint Declaration, five years drafting the Basic Law...with the idea that it would tear them up on July 1." Optimists are confident that Hong Kong can remain a fair and open place to live and work because China needs Hong Kong's money and expertise to speed its own modernization. "The reason we have enjoyed autonomy for the past 50 years was not because the British were here but because China wanted it," says David Chu, a pro-Beijing real estate tycoon who sits in both the outgoing and incoming legislatures. "If that is the case, why should China want to take away our autonomy in the next 50 years?"
Pessimists say don't believe it. The liberty-loving democrats of Hong Kong are doomed to fall victim to China's power-mad communists. Even if Beijing's intentions were good--and they're not--its authoritarian habits and dictatorial rule will not tolerate Hong Kong's freedoms for long. Hong Kong's leading democrat, Martin Lee, predicts that a free press, rule of law, the right of assembly and of political demonstrations will disappear if the people of Hong Kong and the international community fail to fight Beijing for them. Tiananmen was the "real face" of the communists, says Democratic Party legislator Szeto Wah, a 66-year-old veteran opponent of Beijing, "and I know they will never allow any challenge to their authority. If China itself does not become democratic, there is little hope for Hong Kong."
So far, the transition has been amazingly smooth. Throughout the onerous negotiations, despite the revulsion in 1989 over the brutal bloodshed in Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong has grown steadily more prosperous. In a city whose business has always been business, the stock-market surge, real estate boom and expansive corporate behavior point to a bullish future. The place feels surprisingly relaxed. Public confidence in the new leadership is running high: C.H. Tung's favorable rating was 59%, according to a TIME/CNN poll by Yankelovich Partners Inc. While an estimated 387,000 citizens made a preliminary negative bet on the outcome and emigrated over the past few years, many have been coming home as their confidence returns.
Even China's harshest critics doubt that Beijing would deliberately destroy Hong Kong, and most Hong Kong people expect life to go on much as before. "We'll do fine," says Francis Zimmern, patriarch of one of the colony's oldest families and former chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, as he lunches at the old-money Hong Kong Club. "In business I've dealt with China over 50 years, and I've never got a bad check. They've never gone back on an agreement yet."