Like Beijing, Hong Kong faces a "leadership transition" this year. In the 15 years since control of the island passed from Great Britain to China, successive rulers have been chosen by a committee of officials--and while large for a committee (1,200 people), this body is only a fraction of Hong Kong's 7.1 million inhabitants, who have no voice in their government.
But that may be changing. The anointed candidate, Donald Tang, is embroiled in a political scandal that can only be called epic, a sort of caricature of the party boss involving blatant infidelities and a secret, luxury underground bunker with wine cellar and health spa--as well as high-end junkets courtesy of Hong Kong's business community, eager to curry favor with the ostensible heir-apparent. But Mr. Tang's corruption and flagrant disregard for the rules that control the lives of the vast majority has finally proven too much even for this authoritarian political structure, and the people of Hong Kong are demanding he step down and an alternate candidate be put forward.
All this might be a tempest in a tea pot, if the People's Republic of China were not also facing a "transition" of its own. America got its first look at Xi Jinping, the Chinese Vice President and heir apparent to Hu Jintao, last week. The unassuming Xi does not appear to have the endemic vices of Tang, but the fact is that he is slated to be the leader of 1.3 billion people--and they, too, have had no say in the matter. Most Americans, including the Obama administration, seem to accept this state of affairs as inevitable, even though it contributes to the strained economic and diplomatic relationship between the US and the PRC.
Suddenly, Hong Kong is turning into a "real headache" for Beijing: instead of the orderly passing of power in Hong Kong in March that would neatly presage the larger events scheduled for later this year, there is the threat of instability. Nothing could be more dangerous to the PRC than a successful demand for a free system of government where leaders are elected, not transitioned, into office. And unlike the provincial protests in China that rarely make it into the western media, Hong Kong is a much more high-profile case. The inclination of the PRC will be to impose Tang on Hong Kong and respond swiftly and harshly to dissent, but the publicity this might attract would hardly be in keeping with Xi’s carefully groomed image as a western-friendly leader with ties to Iowa and a weakness for the NBA. On the other hand, giving into the demands for increased accountability from the government to the people could result in considerable unpleasantness in the north, if the Chinese people decide to take notice. The situation in Hong Kong could turn out to be something far more serious than a headache for the Communist party bosses--which might in turn present an opportunity to an American president eager to promote democratic change in China.