HONG KONG: In the game of foreign relations, often the smallest gesture can carry the force of a tsunami in its symbolism. Such was the case when future Hong Kong leader C.H. Tung abruptly canceled a planned visit to the U.S. next month. The reason? President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore's announcement that they will meet Friday with Tung nemesis Martin Lee, Hong Kong's most outspoken proponent of democracy. TIME's William Dowell reports that the recognition represents a dramatic shift in the White House treatment of Lee. "For years, former secretary of state Warren Christopher had what amounted to standing orders to brush Lee off onto lower-level State Department officials during his visits to Washington." Tung had hoped to counter what he said were unduly pessimistic predictions about the future of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong once it falls under Chinese rule. Giving court to one of the future administration's biggest critics could show the White House is willing to take a hard line toward Tung, who announced last week that the new government will require police approval of demonstrations and allow political parties to be banned. Although Tung blamed the cancellation on a busy schedule, and aides laughed off the notion that Lee's White House invitation had anything to do with it, the timing was not lost on the worried citizens of Hong Kong.