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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

LEADERSHIP

Beijing's Dark Horse
Somehow, He Manages to Please Everyone

By Susan Berfield
and Law Siu Lan / Hong Kong


IF TUNG CHEE HWA had to woo voters to win the position of chief executive, he would be in trouble. The shipping magnate may very well be qualified to lead Hong Kong after British rule ends in mid-1997 -- it's just that he doesn't have the high profile of other top contenders for the job.

Just six weeks ago only 46% of those surveyed by the Hong Kong Economic Times said they knew who Tung was. And only 15% indicated that they favored him for the CE position. Then again, he doesn't have to face a local electorate.

If he wants the job, Tung does have to face both Hong Kong's and Beijing's power brokers. In fact, he has already served as a consultant to each government -- and managed to please them both. In December, Beijing appointed him one of five vice-chairmen of the Preparatory Committee. "Tung is the best choice if we want a candidate who will be accepted by all," says long-time China adviser and business mogul Henry Fok Ying Tung.

To what is, effectively, Tung's constituency, his low profile is an advantage. Indeed, the 58-year-old has done little to promote himself or secure his leading position in Beijing. He, his wife and their three grown children don't feature in the society pages. And late last year, Tung asked Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On Sang, who is seen as a rival for the CE position, to preside over the christening of his company's new ship, Hong Kong's largest container vessel. Admirers say that this is vintage Tung: self-effacing and diplomatic.

Take Tung's recent trip to Shenzhen, when he and 14 other Hong Kong businessmen met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Tung was noticeably subdued, passing up the opportunity to impress Jiang. "He doesn't flatter Chinese officials," says Dorothy Liu Yiu Chu, a lawyer who has advised Tung.

Much of Hong Kong's entrepreneurial super-elite view Tung as very capable but reasonably innocuous. This may be partly due to the present status of the Tung clan's Orient Overseas International (OOIL). Although OOIL once ranked as one of the world's major shipping companies, it bordered on bankruptcy in the early 1980s. In 1979, Tung took over OOIL for his ailing father. The shipping industry was floundering and the company soon ran aground with debts of some $420 million; Fok rescued the firm with a $198 million investment. Although OOIL is financially healthy today, it can no longer be considered a key Hong Kong player. According to one local businessman, this "has its advantages." OOIL's position is not, he says, "a threat to the interests of any of the big guys."

Tung's relationship with Li Ka Shing typifies his working style. OOIL holds a 23% stake in the $1.3 billion Oriental Plaza complex in Beijing, a joint venture with Li's Cheung Kong Holdings. Although Li put up most of the money, he also grabbed most of the headlines; Tung smoothed the way and kept to the background. In business circles, Tung's tact has distinguished him as a "gentleman" who is uncomfortable with a hard-sell approach.

Beijing officials, no doubt, have taken note. "They need a chief executive who won't generate too much controversy," says a Shandong businessman based in Hong Kong. Adds Liu: "He seems to be immune to disputes in both business and politics." That is so even though the British-educated Tung has served as an executive councilor to Govenor Patten since 1992, acts as a consultant to various Chinese government bodies, and chairs the Hong Kong Committee of the prestigious New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Beijing must have also noticed that about 25% of OOIL's assets are invested in China and that the Tung family has strong Taiwan ties. Tung's brother-in-law, John Y.K. Peng, is a director of the Straits Exchange Foundation, and a critic of the island's independence movement. And it may comfort President Jiang that Tung is also a Shanghai native.

Still, some wonder if Tung has the experience to steer Hong Kong through the murky political waters post-1997. "He has never been a political figure," says sociology professor Lau Siu Kai of Hong Kong's Chinese University. "We cannot be sure about his ability to handle political emergencies." But Tung, as usual, hasn't been trying to dispel anyone's doubts.

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