Not Going to Extremes

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Here is China's headache regarding Hong Kong: how to control the territory without appearing heavy-handed. This political legerdemain lies at the heart of "one country, two systems," but was hardly invented for Hong Kong. It has been in use for decades inside China, where just about everybody has been told they are entirely free, though everyone understands that "free" means "free to concur." In China, successful bureaucrats master the skill of accepting control from above while pretending to be independent.

Tung Chee-hwa means to behave in this way, but, as an outsider to politics and to the communist system, he's simply not very clever at it. For Beijing, he is as frustrating as one of those airport trolleys with a bad wheel that won't push straight. Yet Beijing's rulers cannot afford to sack Tung or even to accept his resignation: that would be an acknowledgment that they picked the wrong guy for the job, and it would also undermine the fiction that China does not meddle in Hong Kong's affairs. A reliable source tells me that when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Hong Kong on July 1 to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the handover, he told Tung to hold the line on the national security legislation labeled Article 23, and to stand by his deputies because "we need stability." (Wen made it clear he was speaking for Chinese President Hu Jintao as well.) When Tung abruptly backed off from Article 23, and again when he accepted the resignations of Security Secretary Regina Ip and Financial Secretary Antony Leung, China's leaders were further exasperated — but continue to see no alternative to Tung.

In Beijing last weekend, Tung probably didn't hear all the criticisms that China's leaders have of him. There are many. According to my source, politburo members Luo Gan and Li Changchun have blamed the Hong Kong government for expecting fewer than 50,000 protesters on the streets on July 1, when about 500,000 actually turned out. How, they have asked, could a government be so out of touch with popular sentiment — and how could they have so badly botched the selling of Article 23? Perhaps in search of a sympathetic ear, Tung requested a meeting with Jiang Zemin, the man responsible for Tung's appointment in 1997.

In the long term, Beijing is likely to avoid both extremes of cracking down or genuinely leaving Hong Kong alone. The most probable course might be an appeal to nationalism by blaming pernicious foreign influences for the current turmoil. At a meeting on July 9, according to my source, five top leaders agreed that the "deep background" to the Hong Kong events was interference from the U.S. Such an analysis differs only in degree, not in essence, from that which claimed the 1989 Tiananmen Square rallies were orchestrated by "a tiny minority" of "counterrevolutionaries" — with foreign backing, of course. None of the main actors — not the Tung government, nor Beijing, nor even any third country — has a fundamental interest in bringing democracy to Hong Kong. For this, Hong Kong's people can only look to themselves.