So how much longer will the relatively benign regime that has characterised the immediate post-handover period continue? How long will it be before a generous interpretation of the 'one country, two systems' concept gives way to a more repressive attitude to civil liberties? Such questions are on the minds of the many who feared last July 1 would mark the end of freedom in Hong Kong and see the People's Liberation Army patrolling Central. They were surprised - and, in a few cases, disappointed - to see their apocalyptic predictions fail to come true and still fear it will not be long before they are proved right. The answer depends on your political perspective. Question Tung Chee-hwa on these fears and he will almost certainly respond that the SAR's existing freedoms and way of life will remain unchanged for at least the 50 years guaranteed under the Basic Law. On the other hand, opposition politicians such as Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming warn that Hong Kong's civil liberties are unlikely to survive another 50 days unscathed, as the foundations on which they are based are already being undermined. For more dispassionate observers the answer is, in some respects, far simpler. Beijing's policy towards Hong Kong is, like all other policies, determined by considerations of its national interest. This means the tolerance of the SAR's freedoms, and strict observance of the 'one country, two systems concept', will continue for as long as it serves China's national interest. That, of course, does not answer the question, unless it can be explained what constitutes China's national interest. In this respect, all that can be said with confidence is that, like many governments elsewhere in the world, the Beijing leadership tends to equate the nation's interests with its own. This means anything that strengthens the position of President Jiang Zemin and his cohorts will be interpreted as being in China's national interest. The question then becomes whether his legitimacy is enhanced by continuing to tolerate Hong Kong's freedoms and its distinctive lifestyle. So far, the signs are encouraging. Anyone who doubts the benefits a relatively benign attitude towards the SAR have brought for President Jiang need only take a look at the United States State Department's latest report on human rights violations which, for the first time, offers some praise for China's record. When Taiwan recently voiced concern that China's initial success in implementing the 'one country, two systems' concept might weaken US support for the island's refusal to accept the same policy, the extent of the rewards to be reaped by adopting a tolerant policy to Hong Kong became clear. From President Jiang's 1997 visit to Washington to Beijing's efforts to be seen to play a helpful role during the regional economic crisis, China has entered a phase in which a responsible foreign policy is being used to create a favourable international impression of the national leadership, so enhancing their domestic standing, a policy in which the SAR has an important role to play. A further crucial consideration, often overlooked by foreign observers, is that the Communist leadership has a vested interest in showing the 'one country, two systems' concept can work since it is their ideological invention. It is not only a question of the effect on Taiwan if it fails, but also of the damage to the legitimacy of Beijing's other more recent redefinitions of orthodox communism, such as President Jiang's rewriting of the concept of public ownership to allow the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. For the foreseeable future, China's national interest is likely to lie in continuing to tolerate Hong Kong's way of life. But that is primarily because this suits the interests of the Beijing leadership. At present, their interests happily coincide with those of the SAR. But this could change if, for instance, the international situation ever became more threatening, or hostilities broke out over Taiwan. Were this to happen, neither the Joint Declaration nor the Basic Law will afford protection against China adopting a less benign policy towards Hong Kong.