HONG KONG — Yesterday's historic choice of businessman Tung Chee Hwa as chief executive of Hong Kong came with a telling foretaste of how China may rule this British enclave next July.
Street protests against the selection of Mr. Tung by a Beijing-appointed committee resulted in police detaining dozens of pro-democracy advocates, including Emily Lau, a legislator recently elected by popular vote.
And as Tung proclaimed his selection as a "milestone in democracy" for Hong Kong, he also said, "Protests are part of Hong Kong's culture and ... should be permitted."
For the West and Hong Kong's 6.3 million Chinese, his words and the parallel events are portents of whether Tung will be independent in handling conflicts between Hong Kong and Beijing.
The Shanghai-born, British-educated shipping magnate must navigate between Beijing's Communist conservatives and those who advocate democracy and freedoms in Hong Kong.
Critics say Tung's "election" to the top post in Hong Kong, to take effect when China's red, five-starred flag replaces the Union Jack on July 1, was preordained by a small circle of Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing. Tung received 320 of 400 votes from the Beijing-appointed committee.
Tung "has been wearing a Hong Kong face but following Beijing's line," says Szeto Wah, cofounder of Hong Kong's Democratic Party.
"I received 100,000 votes from the people of Hong Kong, while Tung received less than 400 from the Selection Committee," the legislator says in an interview. "Who is more popular?"
"Tung is not totally independent," adds Robert Broadfoot at the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy. "But he will not be easily manipulated by Beijing."
Tung, who is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, seems to many to be the perfect bridge between Hong Kong, China, and the world.
China's reversion of sovereignty over Hong Kong will mark the end of 150 years of British colonialism over the territory. China gave Britain the enclave at the end of the Opium Wars in the 1840s. During British rule, the island transformed itself into a freewheeling capitalist haven in Asia. Its governor was appointed by the British government with no input from Hong Kongers.
Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, who presided over the selection process yesterday, said that the election marked the dawn of democracy for Hong Kong and hailed "Comrade Tung's victory."
But in an interview right after her release, legislator Lau said her protest yesterday was aimed at "opposing the undemocratic method of choosing the chief executive and provisional legislature" that is set to replace the current congress.
The lives of Tung and Lau are certain to continue to cross.
When shipping magnate Tung takes up his post at the stroke of midnight on June 30, Lau will be out of a job. China has already set in motion a plan to disband the present Legislative Council - whose members were elected in a democratic vote - with an alternate body to be handpicked later this month.
Tung has conceded his ties with Beijing date back to the 1980s, when a finance consortium that included the state-owned Bank of China bailed out his sinking shipping fleet.
LAU, along with other democrats, worries that Tung cannot serve two masters. She says that he is likely to defer to China in any conflict with Hong Kong and "will not have the determination to safeguard a high degree of autonomy" for the enclave's residents.
Tung himself has sent out mixed signals. While he has stated that "Hong Kong's success is dependent ... on its freedoms and its people," he indicated earlier that he would enforce an antisubversion law aimed at controlling dissidents.
That means that if Lau and other democrats take to the streets when Tung takes office next year, they may find themselves behind bars - with the chief executive's approval.
Business leaders in Hong Kong, however, seem to have confidence in Tung's powers to smooth over any confrontations.
As an international finance center and the "economic capital of Greater China," Hong Kong will rely on those skills to maintain its reputation and dynamism, says a stock analyst based here.
"Tung has not been as closely involved in investing and wheeling and dealing in China as many other Hong Kong tycoons," he says and adds the future leader has a relatively untainted image.