Hong Kong's decision to deny Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) a visa for a visit this week will likely damage the Chinese territory's image and help Ma's possible bid to be Taiwan's next president.
Ma's failure to get a visa so that he could accept a university's invitation to speak about cultural and municipal affairs was big news here the past few days.
The Taipei mayor is wildly popular in Hong Kong because of his good looks, fine manners and reputation for being a squeaky clean politician. During his last visit in 2001, packs of reporters and paparazzi followed him around like he was a rock star.
Ma's visa controversy will give new ammunition to critics of Hong Kong. They claim that civil liberties have been eroding since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" model.
The formula was supposed to guarantee capitalist Hong Kong a wide degree of autonomy along with civil liberties denied in the communist mainland.
But the skeptics -- including many Taiwanese -- claim the former British colony has become less free since returning to Chinese rule seven years ago.
The Taiwanese take great interest in Hong Kong because China wants the island's 23 million people to unify under a similar "one country, two systems" arrangement.
But the plan is extremely unpopular in Taiwan.
Ma's visa debacle will likely create new suspicions in Taiwan about how free Hong Kong really is.
Hong Kong officials have declined to explain Ma's visa rejection, saying they don't comment on individual visa cases. But it's widely assumed that Ma's visa troubles were linked to his recent criticism of China's proposed anti-secession law. The Chinese legislature plans to vote on the measure in March.
Taiwan says the law is designed to create a legal pretext for using military force to make the Taiwanese unify. And Ma recently said the law was unnecessary and unwise.
Beijing might have pressured Hong Kong to deny Ma's visa to keep him out of Hong Kong before lawmakers voted on the anti-secession law. Reporters would have definitely asked Ma about the issue, and he might have stirred up new debate about the proposal.
If Ma ignited new opposition to the law, this would have been embarrassing for Beijing and Hong Kong leaders. They'll probably wait until the anti-secession issue is settled and let Ma visit in April.
One reason Ma's visa rejection was big news in Hong Kong was that he has long been liked by Beijing. As a member of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Ma favors eventual unification and he has been critical of the pro-independence government.
Chinese leaders would celebrate if Ma were elected president in 2008. But Beijing's favor can be a curse for Taiwanese politicians. Candidates who are too friendly with China don't fare well in Taiwanese elections nowadays.
As a presidential hopeful, Ma's biggest challenge would be to convince voters that he wouldn't cut a quick deal with Beijing and sell out to China.
Now, Ma can point to his Hong Kong visa rejection as new proof that he's not Beijing's puppet.