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Which way for Tung Chee-hwa?
Paul Lin

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Since the 500,000-strong demonstration on July 1, three concessions have been squeezed like toothpaste out of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the obtuse and incompetent leader of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

On July 5, he announced amendments to three controversial items in the national security bill. On July 7, he announced that the legislation would be delayed. On July 16, he announced that he had accepted the resignations of Security Secretary Regina Ip and Financial Secretary Anthony Leung, who had both been targets of strong public resentment. On July 17, he called a press conference, where he admitted to his failings during his six years in office, and promised to change his leadership style.

He would rather die than apologize, however. Four times he came close to giving an apology, but he held back -- an indication that he is not a leader who is required to be accountable to the public. Instead, he is a great patriarch on a high horse. The residents of Hong Kong therefore have no confidence in his ability to improve his ways or lead the territory.

This lack of confidence is understandable. Tung made another concession at that press conference. Previously he had been unwilling to commission an independent team to investigate the alleged cover-up of the SARS epidemic by Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong. Instead he let Yeoh Eng-kiong investigate Yeoh Eng-kiong. Then Tung said he was to personally head the investigation, and this was ridiculed as "Tung Chee-hwa investigating Tung Chee-hwa."

Tung was fearful that the investigation might run out of control.

Three years ago, Tung's office was unhappy with a public opinion survey done by Hong Kong University that put him in a negative light. In what is now known as the "Robert Chung Incident," his office pressured the institutions concerned. An investigation into the matter by former chief justice Yang Ti-liang, who is no friend of Tung's, forced the university's chancellor to resign and left the chief executive in disgrace. Tung's "family courtiers" were also forced to resign from public office and return to his family business.

This time, with the resignations of two senior officials, Tung evaded the issue of Ip's terrible performance in her push for the national security bill. Instead, he heaped praise on her and expressed "regrets" about her departure. Tung also praised the "important contributions" by Leung, who had accomplished nothing except sneakily buying a car just before announcing a tax hike. All this tells us how much self-reflection Tung has done.

After making those concessions, Tung went to Beijing on Saturday to report to his bosses. Before his trip, some media claimed that Beijing would strongly back him up in order to stop the public anger against him and the calls for his resignation. The reports even said a group of the Political Bureau's standing committee members would line up to show strong support for Tung. But there was no such scene when Tung went to report to President Hu Jintao, even though Hu did make a political statement fully recognizing Tung's achievements over the past six years as well as the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) "one country, two systems" policy.

Apparently, Hu wanted to stop the Hong Kong public's "presumptuous" demands as well as the criticism and speculation by the outside world. This was determined as much by the CCP's nature -- it would rather die than admit to mistakes -- as by the intent to patch up the differences between Hu and former president Jiang Zemin over Hong Kong.

The fact that Vice President Zeng Qinghong was also present at the meeting explains the treacherousness of Beijing politics. It is extremely rare for both the president and the vice president to meet with an official at the same time. Jiang may have asked his henchman Zeng to attend the meeting to assure Tung. It would have been inappropriate for Jiang to meet with Tung in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Tung also discussed Hong Kong's political, economic and social problems with Premier Wen Jiabao, but he only talked about economics publicly. According to Tung, he and the Hong Kong government has the central government's support in "governing in accordance with the law," and that Wen had agreed to solidify the content of the Hong Kong-China Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement as soon as possible.

Wen also told reporters about four things that "he still believes." One of them was that he "still believed the SAR government headed by Tung Chee-hwa would definitely be able to lead Hong Kong and overcome the current difficulties."

The anti-Tung forces in Hong Kong are primarily divided into two positions. One has no trust in Tung and is determined to unseat him. The other wants to avoid direct confrontation with Beijing and does not necessarily have to unseat Tung.

But Tung must have something to show the people, especially by starting political reforms and moving toward direct popular elections for the chief executive and the Legislative Council. Beijing's support has not defused Tung's governance crisis. Tung used to enjoy stronger support from Jiang than he now does from Hu and Wen. The situation will get worse if Beijing's support causes Tung to lose all sense of reality.

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.

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