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Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2005

A job dogged by historical comparisons

HONG KONG -- Not all modern Chinese leaders are alike. First there was Mao Zedong. History's judgment suggests he could and should have done a lot better as boss man of the Middle Kingdom after the World War II, to say the least.

The latest reviews and assessments in the United States are rather disastrous for his legacy. The founder of modern Communist China has been getting the full demystification-downsizing treatment. A new book, "Mao: The Unknown Story," now being widely reviewed, lays out a most negative story line.

It portrays the revolutionary leader as more evil than the second coming of a conflation of Attila the Hun and Count Dracula (and that would be on one of his better days). But Mao may more or less have deserved this.

By stark contrast, Deng Xiaoping, his successor, is starting to get near-uniformly rave reviews almost everywhere. The diminutive chain smoker who unleashed his country's latent but innate entrepreneurialism is being painted as the little giant who prevented modern Communist China from remaining stuck in the Third World.

That's certainly much the view in Asia. The brilliant founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was recently asked by Time magazine (in a useful and panoramic cover story on Lee in Time Asia) who was the most impressive person he'd met in public life. His quick and unqualified answer: "Deng Xiaoping."

That knowing judgment will probably stand for a long time. But this will depend somewhat on whether people continue to discount the Tiananmen violence of 1989, which Deng signed off on (recent rioting in China did not help this).

It's too soon to evaluate the current mainland team of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, barely out of their rookie season. The prior team of Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji might arguably be viewed as but capable engineers who followed the blueprint of the little master-builder, except for one exceptional and historic chapter in their term: the sailing of post-British colonial Hong Kong in 1997 into the full complex matrix of the "one-country, two systems" formula concocted for this long-anticipated occasion many years before by the late Deng.

Visiting Hong Kong in May 1997, I firmly believed that Beijing would not botch the historic transition, because of Hong Kong's transcendent geopolitical importance to the mainland. Any fair assessment today must conclude just that. Yes, Hong Kong has problems -- who doesn't? But on the question of the quality of its leadership, the territory gets better marks than, it seems to me, Hong Kong's severest critics give it.

The stoic Tung Chee-hwa, the territory's first Chinese governor, was forced out by critics' bedlam. Even so, history will undoubtedly judge this somewhat miscast soul very kindly indeed for having somehow steered tiny but vital Hong Kong out of the past and into the future against such brutal seas as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the Asian Financial Crisis and all sorts of other bad tidings.

People should understand that balancing local needs against the backdrop of Beijing's leering oversight has got to render the job of chief executive of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong as one of the most difficult on the planet.

His successor, Donald Tsang, too new to be squared against any of the figures above, seems to face one political crisis after another. Whoever said that Hong Kong was some quiet little apolitical backwater must have been smoking something very powerful.

But this educated and erudite career civil servant comes across as uncommonly capable. My basis of comparison is the many political figures I have interviewed across Asia over the nine years of writing this column. They have included giants like Lee Kuan Yew to much lesser figures of cardboard depth and kindergarten intellect. This is not Tsang. Repeated interviews with him since 1997 have convinced me that Hong Kong's current leader is as qualified intellectually as his predecessor was committed emotionally.

And there is a major value added to Tsang. It is his impressive intellectual comfort level with leading political analysts, capable academics and other foreign thinkers that he can -- and has, and will -- call on to help assess problems and solutions. He is a particularly cosmopolitan administrator, an absolutely necessary trait for governing Hong Kong in its current status as the geopolitical tip of the "China rising" iceberg.

Balance of all kinds will be needed if Hong Kong is not to fall off into the South China Sea. Tsang is the right man for the job. The prospect of full democracy is an inevitability; the question is not whether it will attain this but when.

The British all but avoided the issue for more than a century and a half. A little more patience with a jittery Beijing at the helm is not too much to ask. Hong Kong's chief enemy is probably its own severe hyper-criticality.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran journalist and member of the Pacific Council on International Relations, has been traveling in Southeast Asia.

Copyright 2005 Tom Plate

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