Though he must have had a few other things on his mind, Vice President Cheney took time Thursday to meet with Hong Kong's puckishly uncharismatic new chief executive, Donald Tsang. It was a wise choice, for at least two reasons: Tsang's city-state is on a front line of the struggle for democracy that the Bush administration says it has embraced, and a meeting with Tsang is always good value.

Tsang is Hong Kong's second leader since Britain handed the colony back to China in 1997. His predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, was a stolid, unimaginative and ultimately unpopular administrator, whose resignation the communist leaders in Beijing accepted with apparent relief in March.

Tsang offers a marked change of pace. As he pointed out during a visit to The Post on Friday, he is the "unlikeliest communist-condoned leader of Hong Kong." He has never been connected to the Communist Party. He follows a faith, Roman Catholicism, "that can't even be practiced in the mainland." Given his long service in the colonial regime, culminating as finance secretary, he is viewed as a "remnant of the colonial past." (He was even knighted, though understandably he does not go by "Sir Donald" these days.) He speaks English more often than Chinese.

"And I wear bow ties," he says with one of the faint smiles that he recaptures almost immediately after turning it loose. "All the wrong things."

A couple of other contrasts with his predecessor are obvious but left unspoken. He is, at least so far, quite popular; polls show he could have won a direct election, if China allowed Hong Kong residents to choose their leaders.

And he says openly that he wishes China would so allow. "Personally, I support universal suffrage for Hong Kong as early as possible. I make no bones about that," Tsang told the Asia Society last week. "There is no doubt that Hong Kong people are worldly-wise and sophisticated enough to elect their own political leaders.

"But," he added, "the development of our political system is not up to me alone."

Which is a polite way of saying that Beijing's communists are afraid to let Hong Kong voters choose, even though they promised, under the slogan "One Country, Two Systems," that direct elections were in the city's future.

That's still the promise, but Beijing has made clear it won't happen in the chief executive's race in 2007. It won't happen in the legislative elections in 2008. And asked about 2012, Tsang declines to make a prediction. He is left to tweak, in a direction that he considers pro-reform but that many opposition politicians reject as meaningless, a convoluted system that allows for some popular participation while guaranteeing Beijing's ultimate control.

Given Hong Kong's population of 6.9 million inside China's 1.3 billion -- and given the powerful message they could send Taiwan if they allowed democracy to flourish in Hong Kong -- it's fair to ask precisely what Beijing's communists fear. One answer is that the Hu Jintao regime, which many had hoped would bring political reform, simply doesn't believe in democracy: Experiments in relatively free speech have been quashed, and the Internet police are busier than ever.

But that's not the whole story, Tsang insists. As to the Chinese leaders, "some are more progressive than others," he says, and they recognize that people in Taiwan are watching to see how one country, two systems plays out.

But Beijing's worries about Taiwan work both ways. Chinese leaders' "greatest fear," Tsang says, is that Hong Kong would become "another Taiwan" -- seeking independence and embarrassing the mainland.

So, he concludes, Hong Kong and China must develop a sense of "trust" before they can take self-determination to the next level. That may explain why he is so careful to call Hu "my president" and China "our sovereign."

Tsang understands the downsides of democracy, too, as when he frets about the growing fiscal imbalance in the United States, in which larger and larger deficits are financed by more and more borrowing from Asian economies, including, notably, Hong Kong's.

"I understand it is bad politics to cut spending or raise taxes," Tsang says. "So you pray and pray that this is not dangerous, and as long as nothing happens in your term, it's okay."

Tsang has no doubt that the imbalance is dangerous, extremely so. But he stresses that he is providing a "personal opinion," not the position of his government. Nor, necessarily, of his sovereign.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

Donald Tsang