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Reports: HK leader 'to step down'


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Hong Kong
Beijing (China)
Tung Chee-Hwa
Donald Tsang Yam-kuen

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Hong Kong's unpopular leader Tung Chee Hwa has resigned, or is preparing to do so, after a rocky eight years of office, local newspapers have reported.

Almost every paper in the former British colony cited unidentified sources as saying the region's 67-year-old chief executive would quit. They said he was expected to cite poor health as the reason for leaving the top post.

The billionaire shipping tycoon has been deeply unpopular since he took the reins following Hong Kong's handover to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula.

The city of 6.8 million people entered a downturn following the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

The gloomy mood was compounded by government moves to introduce an anti-subversion bill and then its handling of a deadly SARS epidemic in 2003.

Many residents thought Beijing's man in Hong Kong mishandled both the legal moves and SARS, which killed around 300 people in the city.

Hong Kongers also expressed their displeasure at the progress the city was making in moving towards greater democracy, and saw Tung as bending to Beijing rather than standing up for the wide degree of autonomy the territory was promised after 1997.

They showed their unhappiness at his style and policies by taking to the streets in massive popular demonstrations on the only part of Chinese soil that allows protests, unnerving leaders in Beijing.

Over the past two years, as many as half a million people have marked Hong Kong's national holiday by calling for Tung's resignation and demanding greater democracy.

The protests were so big that the government shelved controversial anti-subversion legislation.

Tung was handpicked in 1997 by then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin as the right mix of East and West to preserve Hong Kong's freedoms while ensuring a smooth transition to Chinese sovereignty. But displeasure with the aloof Tung extended beyond Hong Kong soil.

Dressing down

At the end of last year he got a public dressing down from Beijing.

On a visit to Hong Kong and neighboring Macau last December, Chinese President Hu Jintao gave Hong Kong's leaders a rare public rap on the knuckles.

"Officials must improve their capabilities and abilities to govern. The officials must turn back and look over the past seven years and find out what has gone wrong," Hu said at the time.

Hong Kong has suffered two economic downturns during Tung's leadership, and last December officials announced they would suspend a $3 billion property privatization.

There have also been a number of resignations involving top officials.

"(Tung) is blamed for a lot of the things that have gone wrong," CNN's Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy said.

The surprising reports that Tung might quit come hard on the heels of his recent nomination to China's leading political advisory body.

Tung will announce his departure after his nomination as vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) is approved on March 12, The Standard reported, citing unnamed sources in Beijing.

The western-educated Tung handed in his resignation before the Lunar New Year on February 9, and it was approved following an emergency meeting of Chinese Communist Party's politburo, The Standard said.

Several newspapers citing unnamed sources point to Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as a possible successor for Tung, who could leave the post as early as this month.

The financial secretary is number two, and is much more popular.

Tipoff

Government officials tipped off local media about the upcoming resignation on Tuesday night, a source told CNN.

There was a slight possibility Beijing could persuade Tung to change his mind, but the resignation seemed "quite certain," the source said.

There has been no official response to the reports on Tung, with a Hong Kong government spokesman telling CNN: "We do not comment on speculative reports."

The press officer added that he expected that Beijing would make any announcement, not Hong Kong.

Tung flies to Beijing Wednesday to attend the CPPCC conference's annual session.

There are differing interpretations of Hong Kong's so-called "mini-constitution", referred to as the Basic Law, as to how an early departure by Tung would need to be handled.

According to the law, a permanent successor must be chosen within six months.

Although Tsang could step in as a temporary leader, it is uncertain how a permanent replacement would be decided, said Chinoy.

Beijing has previously ruled out universal suffrage.

"It leaves questions open about the mechanics of choosing a long-term successor," Chinoy said.

Given Beijing's fear of instability following any resignation of the beleaguered Tung, China's control over the territory will likely be even tighter than before. (Full story)

CNN's Mike Chinoy and Marianne Bray contributed to this report


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