As it seeks to contain the fallout from a political fiasco in its cherished "special administrative region" of Hong Kong, the Chinese government has been uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
A week ago, officials here were surprised by a huge public protest in Hong Kong over proposed subversion laws -- an event that drew an estimated half-million residents into the streets and was tinged with anti-Beijing sentiment.
Predictably, in a country obsessed with domestic stability, the Chinese news media were barred from mentioning what was the largest political demonstration in Hong Kong or the mainland since 1989. Yet in this Internet era, many Chinese intellectuals are well aware that Hong Kong's democracy activists have shown new strength, including a smaller demonstration on Wednesday night.
Early Monday, his support crumbling, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (
"This has been a big shock for China's leaders," said Chu Shulong, a political scientist at Qinghua University in Beijing. "They think China has done a lot for Hong Kong, but now they see that even after all these years a lot of the people don't like Tung, don't like the Hong Kong government and don't like the government in Beijing."
It is unclear just how hard Beijing pushed for these particular laws and for a vote on them right now. Security laws are required by Hong Kong's Basic Law, the nearest thing the island has to a constitution, but their details and the timing of their introduction to society was ostensibly left to the local lawmakers to decide.
It is equally unclear whether Chinese leaders played a direct role in Tung's sudden decision to postpone a vote that was to take place next Wednesday -- a vote, it had suddenly become clear, he would lose -- or how they now feel about Tung himself, a longtime favorite in Beijing.
One reason for this official silence is that Chinese leaders are anxious to sustain the notion that Hong Kong, since its formal return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, enjoys autonomy over its internal affairs.
The Chinese are having special difficulty articulating a policy now, political experts say, because the events have challenged some of their most hallowed political tenets.
The return of Hong Kong to the motherland is regarded in China as one of the great national victories of the modern era; that its residents will thrive and be contented under the promised "one country, two systems" formula is repeated on the mainland as an article of faith.
But the angry debate over the proposed security laws has exposed the inherent weakness of the formula -- what happens when vital interests, as perceived in Beijing and Hong Kong, conflict? No one pretends that in a crunch, Beijing's needs would not prevail.
If the anti-Tung movement gains enough force, Beijing's leaders may face an unpleasant choice between allowing a mass movement to usurp their plans for Hong Kong, or pulling strings on the island far more openly than they want to.
"One country, two systems" is also the principle under which China is pursuing its overriding foreign policy objective, bringing Taiwan under its sovereignty.