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“That day, of course, remains seared in my memory,” he told a luncheon meeting hosted by the Brookings Institution and the local Hong Kong office.

As he watched the twin towers burning, he heard an explosion as another hijacked airliner hit the Pentagon.

He assumed that all of the officials he was scheduled to meet would cancel their appointments.

“We had felt, and we expected, that after a tragedy of such scale, a delegation from Hong Kong would be rather low on the priority list,” he said.

However, everyone kept their appointments with the visiting Hong Kong officials.

“Despite the shock and uncertainties of the day, we were told that it was at times of such great tragedy that friends and partners came together and that Hong Kong was, indeed, a friend and partner of the U.S.,” Mr. Tsang said.

Today, 10 years later, Mr. Tsang is chief executive, the highest position in the Hong Kong government. He is also the face of capitalism in communist China.

Critics doubted that Hong Kong would remain free after Britain turned over its colony to China in 1997. However, China promised to grant Hong Kong, already a thriving commercial center, vast autonomy under what Beijing called the “one country, two systems.” In the ensuing 14 years, many say that China has grown more like Hong Kong economically.

“As China prospers, so, too, will Hong Kong,” Mr. Tsang said.

Mainland China is Hong Kong’s largest trading partner, while the United States remains No. 2.

“Hong Kong has, in fact, played a role as China’s window on the world,” Mr. Tsang added.

The annual Index of Economic Freedom compiled by the conservative Heritage Foundation has ranked Hong Kong as the world’s freest economy since it began publishing the review of more than 180 countries in 1995.

“Hong Kong is a fascinating city,” Mr. Tsang said. “For me and my colleagues, it is the center of the universe.”

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or emailjmorrison@washington The column is published on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.