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JULY 10, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 1


Vincent Yu/AP.
Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, left, comes under fire in Hong Kong's Legislative chamber earlier this year.

Wrong Touch
Hong Kong chief Tung Chee-hwa is slow to develop political skills and quick to please Beijing. No wonder his popularity has plunged
By DAVID LIEBHOLD Hong Kong

Diligent, conservative and loyal to Beijing, the urbane shipping magnate seemed like the perfect choice to run Hong Kong as an autonomous region. And in the three years since Britain ceded the territory to China, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has gotten a lot of things right. He has presided over a smooth transition of sovereignty and demonstrated that China's unprecedented "One Country, Two Systems" formula is, by and large, workable. He has also helped guide Hong Kong's economic recovery (exports surged 22% in May and first quarter gdp growth led the region at 14.3%), and the city's reputation for impartial justice—despite a few worrisome developments—remains the envy of every aspiring business hub in Asia.

So why is Hong Kong's chief in such hot water? In recent weeks the territory has witnessed a series of demonstrations—on housing, education and healthcare reform—that have included unusually sharp personal attacks against the Chief Executive. At one, demonstrators called for Tung to step down. At another, a protester held a placard referring to Tung as an "old idiot" (in Chinese, it's a homonym of his name), a fact that two local newspapers gleefully reported on the front page. The legislature last week passed the territory's first-ever vote of no confidence, against two of Tung's top housing officials. And the Chief Executive's public approval ratings are plummeting, from 60% in January 1998 to 38% this April, according to the Hong Kong Transition Project. "He has an image problem that will be very difficult to reverse," says Lau Siu-kai, associate director of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at Chinese University.

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Not all of this is Tung's fault. He has taken flack for the territory's post-handover economic performance, which until recently was grim. A day after Tung took the reins in Hong Kong, the Thai baht lost 20% of its value, triggering the Asia-wide financial crisis that eventually crippled Hong Kong's economy and pushed unemployment to an unheard-of high of 6.3% last year (it's now 5.1%). The recovery is still halting and, so far, unevenly spread. Concedes Stephen Lam, Tung's press spokesman: "The benefits of resumed economic growth are not yet reaching ordinary families." Tung has also been saddled with an administrative and political structure that many regard as inherently unworkable: an unelected executive accountable to an elected legislature that has, effectively, no policymaking function.

But Tung's leadership style has made things worse. Coming to the job at the age of 60 with little political experience, the Chief Executive has stubbornly declined to engage the public, or even the media. He treats the territory's popularly elected Democrats almost as if they were the enemy. He is often aloof and dismissive of his critics and prefers to be judged by his actions. That approach helped the British-educated tycoon run Orient Overseas Container Lines, one of the world's largest shipping companies. But it isn't working with the people of Hong Kong. "Because of the economic downturn, people have become more aware of the problems in the system," says Li Pang-kwong, a political scientist at Lingnan University. "They are more outspoken than before." Just listen to Chris Mou, a housewife struggling to pay the mortgage: "I'm not just dissatisfied with the government, I'm disgusted with it."

Such sentiment leaves Beijing with a quandary. China clearly feels Tung—who has proven politically reliable—is the man for the job. But even the Communist Party leadership would have difficulty reappointing him for a second term if his popularity continues to dive. Two weeks ago, Beijing fired the first salvo in its attempt to turn public opinion around. President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji invited a delegation of Hong Kong business tycoons to Beijing and urged them to support Tung for a second term in 2002. The tactic may represent something of a subversion of Hong Kong's democratic process, but the lobbying took place in the open—the meeting was reported in Hong Kong's dailies and footage appeared on the nightly news—making China's views on the matter absolutely clear.

Beijing's support may not be what Tung needs to turn things around, however. Even Tung's harshest critics concede that he is sincere, hardworking and unfailingly polite. But they are repelled by his perceived obeisance to the Chinese government. Although Beijing's leaders are generally viewed as respecting Hong Kong's autonomy, the Chief Executive is frequently perceived to be second guessing their wishes. Critics recite a list of measures that have undermined democracy in Hong Kong, from the abolition of elected municipal councils to Beijing's reinterpretation of the Basic Law (Hong Kong's mini-constitution) to limits on the rights of mainland Chinese with one Hong Kong parent to live in the territory. "It's a very tough job," says publisher Jimmy Lai. "If you have to read your boss' face whenever you do anything, you can't develop clear, consistent principles and you send out confusing signals."

Indeed, Tung has frequently disappointed local citizens who would like to see him speak up more for the "Two Systems" part of Hong Kong's political equation and less for "One Country." Unfortunately for Tung, deference to Beijing is not the only charge leveled against him. He also is accused of doing too many favors for local business leaders. Martin Lee, leader of the opposition Democrats, cites several dubious deals, including last year's untendered award of a $1.7 billion project to build a high-tech complex, later dubbed Cyberport, to Richard Li, son of Tung's friend Li Ka-shing. Tung also has taken heat for excusing from prosecution former newspaper tycoon Sally Aw, a pro-Beijing businesswoman who has known the Chief Executive for years.

His legacy will depend largely on decisions made in Beijing. It is China's leaders, for example, who will decide how Hong Kong's political system evolves. Under the Basic Law, the number of directly elected members in the legislature can increase to 100% in 2008 at the earliest. Tung has so far rejected opposition calls for a public discussion of this and other political issues. But if, as seems likely, Beijing balks at establishing a fully fledged democracy on Chinese soil, there could be trouble. "In the long term, there needs to be democratization because that's what the public expects," says Sonny Lo, associate professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong. "Otherwise the Elite at the top will clash with the rest of society."

In the meantime, Hong Kong and Beijing may be stuck with Tung, even if his poll ratings continue to sag. Until 2007, at least, the people have no democratic means of removing him. And China's leaders would surely hesitate to put up another candidate. "No matter how many people oppose Tung, China will have to keep him," says Lai. "If they depose him that means the leadership is deposable." Popular or not, Tung is probably here to stay.

—With reporting by Susan Jakes and Wendy Kan/Hong Kong

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