Tung Chee-hwa cannot simply pick up a hotline and call President Jiang Zemin to try to resolve the constitutional crisis over Beijing's criticism of the Court of Final Appeal judgment. Nor will he be able to phone Premier Zhu Rongji, any other senior leaders or even the aides in their offices for that matter. When the Chief Executive tried to do this just before last August's stock-market intervention he failed to get through to any senior leader, according to a recent report in Britain's Independent On Sunday. Instead he had to be content with relaying his message through the much more junior Liao Hui, head of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO). And that is the body Beijing believes should handle this current crisis, according to yesterday's Foreign Ministry statement, which said the issue was the 'responsibility of the HKMAO'. Contrary to popular belief, Mr Tung does not have a hotline to the senior leadership. Nor does his office even seem to have any direct channel of communication with them. SAR officials say the Chief Executive's contacts with the mainland have to follow the same bureaucratic route as that used by any other Hong Kong civil servant. This means his messages, even on such urgent matters as the current constitutional crisis, can only be sent via the HKMAO, which acts as the gatekeeper in all mainland-SAR contacts, and is responsible for passing them on to senior mainland leaders. The only special treatment Mr Tung receives, according to those involved in the process, is that his messages are forwarded more speedily. Until now, this lack of a direct channel did not seem to matter, given the post-handover honeymoon in Beijing-Hong Kong relations. The rigorous application of the HKMAO's gatekeeper role was even seen as helpful, as it guarded against interference in the SAR's autonomy by cadres elsewhere in China. All but forgotten were the pre-handover suggestions that the Chief Executive needed some position of authority in the mainland hierarchy, perhaps as a vice-chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, if Hong Kong was to stand any chance of making its voice heard in Beijing in the event of a crisis. But now that such a crisis has arisen, the perils of having no such voice of influence, nor even direct access to Zhongnanhai, are painfully clear. The SAR's new office in Beijing cannot help. Its head, former Patten aide Bowen Leung Po-wing, is not senior enough and issues such as this fall outside his office's remit. Nor can Mr Tung consult the mainland officials based in Hong Kong. The crisis is beyond the remit of Foreign Ministry Commissioner Ma Yuzhen while local Xinhua chief Jiang Enzhu seems to be studiously sticking to the post-handover principle that the news agency must not become embroiled in Hong Kong affairs. This means that the Chief Executive will initially have to try to resolve this crisis through indirect channels and contacts at the more junior level of the HKMAO. His chance for direct contacts at senior levels will not come until he visits Beijing for the March 4 official opening of the SAR office, a trip likely to include meetings with Mr Jiang and Mr Zhu. It is often said that Mr Tung is trusted by the central government and there can be little doubt this is correct. But trust does not necessarily imply influence. With no position in the mainland hierarchy, nor even direct access to senior leaders, it would be unrealistic to expect Mr Tung to exercise too much influence at a national level. The crisis over the Court of Final Appeal will put to the test whether enjoying Beijing's trust is enough when it is not matched by much influence.