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Self-Imposed Double Trouble Brings a Summer of Discontent to China

Beijing is stuck in Taiwan with a leader it can't handle, and in Hong Kong with a leader who can't handle the job.

August 09, 2000|TOM PLATE

The United States isn't the only country with big, windy political confabs this summer. In China, at a seacoast resort called Beidaihe, thousands of delegates from the government and the party are lolling around in shorts or ill-fitting bathing suits while trying to convince themselves that all is going well. It's their annual leadership retreat, and almost every Chinese leader is there, save for two who have not been invited, for obvious reasons. And yet these two figures are causing Beijing major headaches. In fact, it's become the summer of Beijing's discontent.

One not-invited figure is Tung Chee-hwa, the chief executive of Hong Kong. Under the late Deng Xiaoping's innovative but untested "one country, two systems" formula, Hong Kong was to be allowed to do its own thing to the max, while Beijing went on with its own business and made believe it had little to do with anything there. It's an interesting idea that may not work, but it's how Beijing wanted to play the game--so Tung must stay at arm's length and not in Beijing's shadow.

Nonetheless, everyone knows Tung is Beijing's man, make no mistake about it, and China's man has been stumbling badly of late. Back in 1997, a carefully selected committee of pro-China figures in Hong Kong "elected" the well-moneyed businessman as the successor to the British colonial governor. At the time, he looked to be exactly who the men and women of Beidaihe would want. He was loyal to Beijing, trusted by the top leaders, a political conservative who wasn't about to try anything funny, and likable: He took the job more out of dedication to his people than any overarching political ambition.

Yet this courtly millionaire is now beginning to drag Hong Kong down. The territory is beset by many problems, including a sputtering economy and political infighting. Worse yet, his administration faces charges of favoritism in the awarding of contracts and displays extraordinary vacuity in the articulation of new policy. It is now awkwardly defending itself in a major scandal, wholly unproved, involving a Tung official who allegedly leaned on a Hong Kong University pollster in an effort to soften unflattering results.

In reality, Tung is a warm man with a passion for Hong Kong, but he is almost completely unable to articulate it. In small groups, he can be as warm and generous as Ronald Reagan, but in public he has nothing like Reagan's famed communication skills. Indeed, Tung rarely talks to the media, and that reclusiveness makes him his own worst enemy. The local press, still basically free and scrappy to a fault, doesn't like him, in part because he rarely talks to them, and so Tung, one of the most decent politicians you'll ever encounter, is thoroughly miscast. It's an almost impossible job anyway, having to serve two masters, but it certainly doesn't play to Tung's strengths. As a true Hong Kong patriot, he should not run for reappointment when his term expires the year after next, and his pals in Beijing, if they truly believe in the one country, two systems principle, should not force him to stay on.

All this uncertainty makes leaders in Beijing nervous because they know that what happens in Hong Kong can affect what happens in Taiwan. Beijing keeps eyeing Taiwan as the next candidate for one country, two systems. Of course, Taiwan doesn't buy the idea. It likes its autonomy, thank you, and now sports a brilliant leader who is turning into even more of a headache for Beijing than the one in Hong Kong. He's Chen Shui-bian, elected as the island's president in March. He represents the pro-independence party, and in a preelection miscalculation, Beijing, too visibly eager to advance a Greater China that would embrace Taiwan as well as Hong Kong, unintentionally whipped up sympathy for Chen, who narrowly won the race. By overtly opposing him, Beijing probably had almost as much to do with Chen getting his job as it did with Tung.

For Beijing, Chen is big-time trouble. Unlike Tung, he absolutely drips with political savvy and is far faster on his political feet than anyone the bathers of Beidaihe have seen in a long time. Harvard-educated, he plays the heartstrings of the U.S. Congress, which is so enamored with Taiwan as David to China's Goliath, while managing to avoid taunting the mainland needlessly, as did his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui.

So the visitors to Beidaihe now face a dose of double trouble. In Taiwan, they inadvertently helped put in office someone who they can't handle; in Hong Kong, they orchestrated the selection of someone who can't handle his job. Because they trust the latter every bit as much as they distrust the former, the Chinese leadership, ever conservative and cautious, won't do anything drastic in either case. China will gamble that its problems in Taipei and Hong Kong will go away, even knowing that they won't. That's why China's elite can't really enjoy its seaside frolic.


Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column runs Wednesdays. E-mail:

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