Slow Tiananmen in Hong Kong

China's deepest concern after taking over Hong Kong in 1997 was that the rest of China would demand the same freedoms enjoyed in the former British colony.

That's probably why Beijing made clear this week it will ignore massive marches for more democracy in Hong Kong, such as the one on Jan. 1 that drew tens of thousands of protesters.

Under its mini-Constitution, Hong Kong could in theory be allowed to directly elect its leader after 2007. But Wednesday, Beijing's handpicked leader for the territory, Tung Chee-hwa, said he would first need approval from Beijing and would only set up a task force to study political reform. That's a sure trigger for more marches. When Mr. Tung tried to ram through an antisubversion law on Hong Kong last summer, he sparked a protest by 500,000 people.

China, which is trying to show it has become a modern nation in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, can't afford to have steady displays of people power in Hong Kong. The marches, and indeed open elections of leaders, would undercut the Communist Party's claim that it alone represents the masses, spurring rebellions in other parts of China.

Hong Kong's marches at least serve as a useful, embarrassing nudge for China to speed up its feeble attempts at limited elections in villages. And Taiwan's feisty democracy, which plans an anti-Beijing referendum in March, also helps highlight the mainland's debilitating authoritarian ways.

For now, Beijing must decide whether it can live with the weakened Tung, or replace him. The latter would deflate the protests but clearly show Beijing is vulnerable.

As Hong Kong goes, so goes China.

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