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ONLINE DOCUMENT: NERVOUS TAIWAN EYES HONG KONG HANDOVER

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Chinese President Jiang Zemin didn't stint on symbolism in a recent speech on Chinese reunification: "The return of Hong Kong is the first station in our Long March."

The ultimate destination is Taiwan. By making a success of Hong Kong's handover next July, the strategy goes, Taipei can be brought back to the fold under the same formula of "one country, two systems" - and its promise of autonomy.It's a neat argument, which could ease cross-straits ties and encourage careful handling of Hong Kong. But there is a flaw: Taiwan dismisses the parallels drawn by Beijing and views Hong Kong's handover in a rather different light.

"We are fundamentally different from Hong Kong," says Taiwan Foreign Minister John Chang.

"It is like night and day," he adds, citing Taiwan's development of its own political system, its democratic presidential elections this year and the fact that Hong Kong has always been a colony - or at least for the 150 years during which it risen from a barren rock to a regional business hub.

For him, the "one country, two systems" formula cannot work in Taiwan, even if it does in Hong Kong. And he expresses reservations on that score.

"I have worries. I am puzzled about why they will abolish the legislature," says Chang, referring to Beijing's plan to replace Hong Kong's elected Legislative Council. This, he believes, will damage confidence, the key to a smooth handover.

So, too, he argues, will China's plans to station a People's Liberation Army garrison in the territory.

Chiou I-Jen, secretary general of the Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan's main opposition group, puts his concerns bluntly. "Corruption after 1997 will be a serious problem. I don't think China will be able to maintain the same standards concerning the rule of law."

Similar fears are reflected in local surveys. An opinion poll by the United Daily News at the end of June, for instance, showed that more than 60 percent of respondents didn't believe Beijing would give Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. Just over 50 percent said the territory would be unable to maintain its current prosperity.

Not all Taiwanese are pessimistic.

"Hong Kong was not built in a day and it will not be replaced in one day," says Jack Sun, president of Pacific Electric Wire & Cable, one of Taiwan's largest companies.

Sun has substantial investments in the territory and believes that Beijing appreciates the need to maintain its prosperity. "They may want to build up Shanghai, but Hong Kong is indispensable for China."

It's also important to Taiwan. And for this reason, more than the logic advanced by Jiang, the return of Hong Kong to the mainland might strengthen ties across the Taiwan Strait.

The bulk of Taiwan's trade with the mainland flows through Hong Kong, including an estimated 1 million containers of ocean cargo a year. Much of the $30 billion of Taiwanese investment on the mainland is channeled through the territory.

Hong Kong's handover will therefore provide common ground.

"We will keep our representative offices in Hong Kong and our commercial relationships will remain unchanged," says one senior Taiwanese official.

This will encourage contacts between representatives from the mainland and Taipei and will involve negotiations to formalize existing links, particularly in transport and shipping.

Private talks are due in Hong Kong this month amid concerns by Taiwanese shippers that the issue be resolved as quickly as possible.

Lin Hsing-shan, chairman of Evergreen Marine, says the most pressing problem is to agree on Hong Kong-Taiwan links, but the discussions are also expected to broach direct ties.

With Hong Kong's handover, such links will draw closer.

"Hong Kong will be part of China, so the charade of indirect trade will be hard to uphold," says one port official.

According to this view, it is in business rather than Jiang's grand scheme that the steps to closer ties will be taken.