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Hong Kong leader resigns

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Hong Kong's first leader since the handover, Tung Chee-hwa, announced he is leaving office with two years remaining in his term. He cites nonspecific health issues (March 10)
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Hong Kong's first leader since the former British colony was handed over to China nearly eight years ago has tendered his resignation.

After more than a week of fever-pitch rumors, the embattled Tung Chee-hwa told a news conference on Thursday he was resigning two years before his term expires because of poor health.

"My health was obviously not as good as it used to be" Tung said. "If I continue as chief executive, I won't be able to handle it."

The territory's first post-colonial leader said he handed in his resignation with China's leadership an hour before his announcement and hoped Beijing would accept it.

But many analysts are skeptical that ill health is the real reason behind his early departure. They have said that despite Tung's denial, Beijing is tightening its grip on the city by asking him to leave.

Tung, a former billionaire shipping tycoon, was hand-picked by an 800-member committee in Beijing to take the reins of the territory of 6.8 million people in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that promised a high degree of autonomy.

But Tung lost the confidence of residents in Hong Kong and leaders in Beijing over his handling of the territory during that time, in particular the financial meltdown in 1997, growing calls for democracy and the deadly SARS epidemic.

Last week the 67-year-old was named as a candidate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an elite advisory body that includes retired Chinese officials.

As widely predicted, Tung's deputy, Donald Tsang, has been named Hong Kong's acting chief executive. He is a popular civil servant educated at Harvard University who received a knighthood for his service during British colonial rule.(Full story)

Speaking to the media after Tung's announcement, Tsang said the resignation does not come into effect until Beijing accepts it.

Hard times

During his rule, Tung has struggled to deal with a number of recessions. Many residents thought he mishandled growing calls for democracy, moves to introduce an anti-subversion bill, and the SARS virus -- which killed about 300 people in the city.

Protesters showed their unhappiness at Tung's style and policies by taking to the streets in massive demonstrations, unnerving leaders in Beijing.

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

While the protests forced the government to shelve controversial anti-subversion legislation, many saw Tung as merely a puppet for Beijing.

Displeasure with his leadership extended beyond Hong Kong, with leaders in Beijing giving the territory's leader a rare public rap on the knuckles last year.

On a visit to Hong Kong and neighboring Macau last December, Chinese President Hu Jintao said the city's officials must improve their 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.

Setback for democracy?

Democracy activists have said Tung's departure may be a setback for their cause.

The week of indecision Hong Kong faced since rumors of Tung's departure broke out show a lack of transparency in the city, they said. Activists also are concerned Beijing may have told him to leave.

Commentators too have said they are afraid China will exert greater control over the city by the new leader it installs. (Full story)

Democrats are alarmed Beijing "might return someone very objectionable, even more objectionable than Tung, and saddle them with such a person for at least five years, and postpone any real reform of the ... (chief executive) election procedure for at least five years," according to Michael Degolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project.

According to Hong Kong's Basic Law, a permanent successor must be chosen within six months.

Legal experts have argued the law clearly says the next elected leader should get a new five-year term, rather than serve out the two-year remainder of Tung's term.

Beijing -- which favors the two-year option -- might have to provide a constitutional interpretation.

Although Tsang could step in as a temporary leader, it is uncertain how a permanent replacement would be decided, according to CNN's Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy.

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

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