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It's time for Tung Chee-hwa to go
AFAR
7/16/2003



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In the recent massive demonstrations in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa once again showed his obtuse and obstinate nature. People in China and the outside world alike were shocked by the July 1 demonstration of nearly a million people. Tung alone seemed to respond with "composure" because his authority came from Beijing. Even if several million people were to take to the streets, he wouldn't care as long as Beijing doesn't dismiss him from office.

Thus, on the three mornings following July 1, Tung uttered an unperturbed "good morning" to the journalists waiting for him. He didn't appear the least bit ashamed. Nor was he prepared to respond quickly. Instead he remained mired in inconclusive committee meetings.

Only on July 4, when Liberal Party Chairman James Tien, who sits on Hong Kong's policy-making Executive Council, returned from a pilgrimage to Beijing and proposed delaying the legislation, did Tung sense the threat of internal division in his camp. This finally prompted him to respond on July 5.

He compromised on three particularly controversial parts of the draft national security bill being enacted in accord with Article 23 of the Basic Law. However, he remained intent on holding second and third readings on July 9.

On July 6, however, the Liberal Party insisted on postponing the legislation, and Tung knew that he would be unable to pass the bill in the Legislative Council. He was thus forced to announce on July 7 that the legislation would be postponed -- an event known as the "July 7 incident."

We can see from this series of events that Tung has completely lost the initiative and is retreating step by step in response to outside pressure.

As if having completed a major task by announcing the postponement, Tung subsequently went silent again for several days. He made no response whatsoever to the 50,000 residents of Hong Kong who surrounded the Legislative Council on July 9 to demand the return of power to the people. Then on July 10, Tung attended a lunch meeting and gave a speech. People expected he would make some important announcement, but he spent over an hour talking about why Hong Kong's secretary for health, welfare and food, Yeoh Eng-kiong, was investigating himself over his handling of the SARS outbreak.

In the fight against SARS, Yeoh was widely criticized for covering up the epidemic. Tung organized a committee to investigate this issue and chose Yeoh himself to head it. After over a month of criticism in public opinion forums, Tung's explanation on this occasion was that because the investigation was focused on incidents, not people, there was no harm in putting Yeoh in charge. With this kind of obtuse and obstinate leader, can Hong Kong be saved?

After July 1, apart from local communists, the Law Committee of the National People's Congress and the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all of whom expressed support for Tung, the central government did not declare its position. There have been reports that Beijing sent a delegation to Hong Kong to survey popular opinion and even got in contact with the democratic faction there.

There have also been reports that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who was in Shenzhen at the time, cursed Tung after seeing television images of the demonstration, saying "What the hell is going on!"

But Beijing is also faced with a dilemma.

Considering the need for "stability," Beijing would naturally prefer to retain Tung, but he has completely lost the support of the people. His unequivocal language about Article 23 -- including that there could be no compromise on certain content of the legislation and no postponement of its enactment -- has been proved a pack of lies. How can he govern Hong Kong?

Moreover, in the buildup to and the aftermath of the demonstration, he displayed extreme incompetence. How can he assuage the public anger and handle the problems that have arisen? And how can the important task of stimulating the economy be handed to a dim-witted official like him? On the other hand, Beijing must consider whether the people of Hong Kong would only raise more demands if Tung were replaced. In particular, would they demand popular election of the chief executive? What if Beijing loses control?

Although Beijing is still hesitating, members of the public are already beginning to look for Tung's successor. If this movement grows, it will be difficult for Beijing to retain Tung, not to mention that having become accustomed to acting as a puppet, Tung is incapable of taking any initiative himself.

The candidates being discussed include Henry Tang, Tien, Allen Lee, Victor Fung, Peter Woo, Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang, Rita Fan and Executive Council member Leung Chun-ying.

The financial sector has responded by saying that if Fung were to replace Tung, the Hang Seng Index would shoot up by 500 to 1,000 points because he has an excellent track record as chairman of the listed company Li & Fung Ltd. His later performance as chairman of the airport authority was not bad either. He has a low-key style and good connections abroad. Tsang has a good image and is capable as well. He could lift the Hang Seng Index by 200 to 300 points.

Leung is the most controversial candidate. The chairman of a securities firm predicted that the Hang Seng Index will drop by 1,000 points if he takes charge. However, one fund manager has said that merely announcing a change of leadership would cause the market to rise by 200 to 300 points. One can see how unpopular Tung is.

The international ratings agency Standard & Poor's has even hinted that Tung must step down or become a mere figurehead in order to resolve the crisis. Some fund managers have said they will pull their money out of Hong Kong. It appears Beijing won't delay for too long in deciding whether to retain Tung. The only fear is that the process might become bogged down in a power struggle at the highest echelons.

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.


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