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The Williamsburg Conference 1997


It is rare to know in advance when history will be made. As a result the Williamsburg Conference normally focuses its discussions on developments in Asia and U.S.-Asian relations during the past year. In 1997, however, participants looked ahead to a major turning point in the region: the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. Hong Kong provided the appropriate and dramatic setting for our talks. The end of British rule has meaning not only for Hong Kong, but also for China and the rest of Asia. With Macao's reversion slated for 1999, centuries of colonialism in the region will end, setting the stage for a new era in Asian affairs.

The return of Hong Kong will take place against the backdrop of continued rapid change in China. Maintaining high levels of growth without further widening economic disparities among its population and confirming the succession to Deng Xiaoping are just two of the challenges facing Beijing's leadership. How such problems are dealt with will have an impact on the future of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. But we should also keep in mind, as Chief Secretary Anson Chan noted in her keynote address at the conference, that Hong Kong's success will depend upon the determination of this community to maintain its way of life. Differing agendas aside, the close interrelationship between the economies of Hong Kong and China led to a consensus among participants on the importance of the United States renewing most-favored-nation status for China.

The informal atmosphere at the Williamsburg Conference allowed participants to be equally candid in treating other issues of the day, including the potential for reconciliation in South Asia, responses to the famine in North Korea, political tensions resulting from the pressures of globalization on the economies of Southeast Asia, and Japanese economic reform. China's evolving role as a world power led participants to call once again for firm U.S. presidential leadership on U.S.-China relations.

In the absence of Cy Vance, it was my privilege and pleasure to co-convene this year's conference with Tommy Koh and Yoshio Okawara. They guided the discussions with their usual fairness and insight, borne along on flows of lively and informed commentary from a particularly talented roster of participants. I join them in thanking Marshall Bouton, executive vice president of the Asia Society, and Kate Simpson, program associate, for their superb organization of the meeting. Mary-Hart Bartley and Jennifer Martin provided first-rate administrative assistance. Kevin Quigley, newly appointed vice president for Contemporary Affairs and Corporate Programs, lent key support on the ground. Asia Society regional center director Richard Mueller, assistant director Dede Huang, and the able staff of the Society's Hong Kong Center were important contributors to the success of the conference. We sincerely thank the conference funders, whose names appear at the end of this report. With their support the Williamsburg tradition continues, as does the quality and relevance of this oldest of trans-Pacific dialogues.

Nicholas Platt
President, Asia Society