Commentary: Why China Should Embrace Hong Kong's Chan

Hong Kong's Chief Secretary, Anson Chan, is one tough lady. In a recent interview in her office, the territory's leading civil servant was asked what it would take for her to leave government service after the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese. "I don't mean this as a threat," she says. "I am determined that when I go it will be because I want to go, and not because somebody pushed me out." Those words are a challenge to the Hong Kong tycoons and pro-China politicians who resent the fact that the 57-year old Chan is staying on and will soon become the second-most-powerful official in the new government. They consider her too close to the British and too inexperienced in dealing with China. Many of them would be happy to see Chan go.

But Beijing officials should ignore the opposition developing to Chan among their wealthy allies in Hong Kong. If China is truly committed to its official policy of one country, two systems, Chan is certain to be the best defender of the faith. She is sure to fight the worst excesses that could seep in from China, such as corruption and crime--the practices China President Jiang Zemin wants to eradicate. A proponent of small and clean government, Chan also will contest any moves to squander Hong Kong's wealth. And she has earned the respect of the international business community, which would view her departure as a reason to lose confidence.

Of course, a gap exists between Chan and Beijing officials on how Hong Kong should be run. While China might consider certain civil liberties in Hong Kong to be of marginal value, Chan views them as essential. There is also no doubt that Chan's first loyalties are not to China. "My objective is to serve the best interests of Hong Kong," she says. "That is so now, and it will be so after 1997." Chan has adroitly increased her visibility of late, seeking opportunities to speak out on Hong Kong's future. The resulting publicity has bestowed on the Chief Secretary the role of champion for Hong Kong's rule of law and its unique vitality against all the possible degradations of Chinese rule.

Yet Chan is also ready to be flexible. Despite talk of a rift between her and Chief Executive C.H. Tung, Chan has every intention of serving the Beijing-backed Tung as well as she did outgoing Governor Chris Patten. "You owe [the chief executive] loyalty, you owe him honesty, you owe him support and unbiased advice," she says. While Chan has objected to the creation of a provisional legislature backed by China, she is now signaling a willingness to play ball: "As a civil servant, I will work with the legislature of the day," she says, though she wants a legislative election as soon as possible.

SWARM. Chan also is tackling some of the tasks that concern Beijing most, especially the control of immigration. Both Hong Kong and Beijing officials understand that a sudden influx of mainland immigrants could swamp Hong Kong's educational, housing, and medical services. Tung has given Chan the job of heading off a problem. This could even mean crossing swords with Chinese officials who make big bucks by peddling entry permits.

Chan also may find solutions to problems that always dogged the British. While the British administration and the Chinese usually clashed on expensive infrastructure projects that would further integrate the economies of Hong Kong and China, Chan is figuring out a way for Hong Kong to offer partial funding for the most valuable projects.

To date, Beijing has kept Chan at arm's length, unable to figure out her mix of idealism and practicality. With the exception of one brief high-level meeting, Beijing's top brass hasn't met with Chan since Tung named her as his top aide. That's a mistake. If anything, they should go out of their way to show that the popular Chan is welcome in China--and that her views will be respected. While Beijing's bureaucrats and Hong Kong's tycoons have cozied up to one another, it's Shanghai-born Anson Chan who is best positioned to protect their long-term investment.

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