Friends in High Places

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HONG KONG: TIME's Sandra Burton reports that stories of sharp conflicts in the offing as Hong Kong becomes part of China once more should be discounted, as they must be viewed through the prism of the close friendships forged long ago between the leaders of the opposition factions. Long before incoming chief executive C.H. Tung and Democrat Martin Lee ever squared off as Hong Kong's bickering odd couple, both were part of Hong Kong's elite social circle, Lee as a politician, and Tung as a successful businessman. That bond may mean more than the superficial politics of the transition. Says Burton: "Tung isn't considered the enemy; Lee and many other Democrats knew him or were friends long before he took this job. Some have known him since birth." And despite the rhetoric, Tung doesn't want to see his old friend Lee jailed for his beliefs. The two men still talk several times a week. That same social network keeps Tung in close contact with other leaders of the democratic opposition. In January, Tung named Paul Yip as his top adviser. Yip, who has been called both an underground communist and a closet democrat, gives Tung frequent updates on the Democratic camp's views by attending their meetings regularly. When Tung was criticized by Hong Kong movers and shakers for his verbal attacks on pro-democracy politicos, Yip persuaded Tung to tone it down. Tung listened, and his approval ratings remained steady. Such connections are at the heart of Hong Kong, where politics have always taken back seat to personal relationships, and could provide the needed barrier to keep the healthy disagreements from turning into open confrontation.

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