Leaders who draw lines in the sand take big political gambles in that they deprive themselves of the flexibility they may need. George H.W.Bush, who was president when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, drew a line in the sand by declaring the US would use overwhelming force to crush the Iraqis if they went on to invade Saudi Arabia. By locking himself into a policy position, he surprised even his generals who preferred flexibility in the use of force. As we know, Bush won his gamble.
Leung Chun-ying is not yet officially our chief executive but he has already twice locked himself into a position. First, he rejected calls to comment on the huge turnout for the candle-light vigil marking the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Then he rebuffed demands to comment on the suspicious death of Tiananmen dissident Li Wangyang. Both times, he declared that, as Hong Kong's chief executive, he must draw a line in the sand against commenting on the mainland's internal affairs.
By drawing such a line, he has deprived himself of the flexibility to speak out on sensitive issues important to Hong Kong people, and to reflect their views on these issues to national leaders. This has handed his opponents an ace to play against him. They are now doing exactly that by mocking him as a stooge who dare not antagonise his Beijing bosses. Critics will cast his minute of silence on Saturday to mourn Li more as an act under public pressure than as a genuine reflection of Hong Kong's sentiments.
The stooge card is always a good one to play in local politics and now is a particularly good time to play it. We are heading into a politically charged few days with top mainland leaders coming here for the 15th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, the inauguration of Leung and the annual July 1 protest march. Throw into this mix the disgust among Hongkongers over Li's death, and the stooge card could be used against Leung by making it a rallying cry to swell the protest turnout.
What makes Leung's line worse is that it is too blurry. Where exactly does this line fall in the context of 'one country, two systems'? Will he refrain from talking about everything that falls on the mainland side of 'two systems' or just the politically sensitive ones?
Leung's line in the sand brings back the question of what is more important: one country or two systems? Surely, there is something wrong if our top leader cannot comment on a country issue that has deeply disturbed Hongkongers, who are part of that country. How else can our leader reflect the views of Hongkongers to our national leaders?
Leung told me in a TV interview during the election campaign that he would put Hong Kong's interests first in dealing with national leaders. Did he do that with Saturday's silent tribute? Or was it just a clever way to avoid crossing his line? A silent tribute under pressure and speaking out forcefully to express Hong Kong's views are two different things. If even the mainland authorities and our outgoing chief executive can now say there might be something fishy about Li's death, why can't our incoming chief executive?
Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. firstname.lastname@example.org