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Hong Kong's man on a tightrope

Tung Chee-Hwa
Tung was educated in Great Britain, spent six years in the United States studying business and is fluent in English  

Tung Chee-hwa (1937- )

"Freedom is not unimportant. But the West just doesn't understand Chinese culture. It is time to reaffirm who we are. Individual rights are not as important as order in our society. That is how we are."

-- Tung Chee-hwa, speaking in June 1997, shortly before Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule.

(CNN) -- Reaction was mixed when China chose shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa to become Hong Kong's chief executive under Chinese rule.

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Who said that?

To the business community, it was a sign that Beijing viewed Hong Kong as its new economic flagship, led by a tycoon with a solid track record, a pragmatic man for whom economics and prosperity were key.

To Hong Kong's democratic wing, however, Tung was a troublesome prospect, a man whose business had once been bailed out by Beijing, hence a man who would be forever in Beijing's debt.

Would Tung have the strength to stand up to China if a crisis arose over democratic principles and human rights?

When the departing British colonial administration expressed such concerns, their sentiments added to Sino-British hostility over the handover and caused London to minimize its cooperation with Tung.

Born to the shipping business

But life is rarely simple. Tung Chee-hwa was born on May 29, 1937, in Shanghai, the eldest son of shipping legend C.Y. Tung. The family fled the Communist victory on the mainland and moved to Hong Kong in 1949.

After spending his teens in the British colony, Tung graduated with a science degree from the University of Liverpool. He lived in the United States for several years before returning to Hong Kong in 1969.


He became the chairman of his father's shipping company, Oriental Overseas, in 1979. Three years later his father died at a time the shipping industry worldwide was in a slump. In danger of collapse, Oriental Overseas was salvaged in 1986 by Hong Kong tycoon Henry Fok, but it is widely assumed the Chinese government actually funded the rescue.

Beijing had watched Tung carefully for years, impressed by his international background, business acumen and political potential. In the early 1990s Tung began serving in various advisory roles for China. Tung also gained inside knowledge of Hong Kong government when he served as a member of Gov. Chris Patten's Executive Council for four years.

Jiang and Tung
Tung shakes hands with Chinese President Jiang Zemin as Chinese leaders arrive in Hong Kong for the July 1, 1997, handover celebrations  

Then in 1995 Chinese President Jiang Zemin gave Tung a high-profile handshake in front of photographers, an indication Beijing was grooming Tung for bigger things. A year later, in December 1996, Tung Chee-hwa became chief executive-designate of post-colonial Hong Kong.

Armed with Beijing's blessings and a cordial relationship with the territory's last British government, Tung appeared to symbolize a logical bridge as Hong Kong prepared to cross over from one era into another.

Whose side is he on?

China promised Hong Kong autonomy under the "one country, two systems" equation, and Tung's remarks before and after the handover reflected a certain duality.

In speeches for a largely Chinese audience, he would make remarks such as, "Whatever we do in Hong Kong, we must think of the national objective."

Tung Chee-Hwa
Shortly after the handover became official on July 1, 1997, Tung was sworn in as Hong Kong's chief executive  

Before international media, however, he vowed to protect freedoms, insisting that the type of crackdown that occurred in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 would never happen in Hong Kong.

At the same time, however, he proposed legislation to increase controls on demonstrations in Hong Kong and urged local democrats to forget Tiananmen Square and focus on full reunification with China.

In the two years since it came to power, Tung's administration has weathered several crises. The Asian economic malaise also took its toll, and the territory's recovery has been slower than expected.

There was a health scare with the so-called "chicken flu" during which Tung's government was criticized for not responding quickly enough.

In 1999 his administration appealed to China directly to overturn a ruling by Hong Kong courts that would have allowed people from the mainland to settle in Hong Kong. Critics saw that as a clear flouting of the separation between China and Hong Kong, an ominous reminder that Beijing could step in at a moment's notice and undermine the territory's autonomy.

For now, though, Hong Kong continues to enjoy freedom of expression. Demonstrators still gather each year on June 4 to mourn the Tiananmen Square massacre. Local democrats are represented in the Hong Kong legislature, having been elected freely by the territory's residents. And Hong Kong remains a hub of finance and commerce, for now still the jewel in Beijing's crown.

Tung Chee-hwa's tightrope act so far has succeeded -- a tenuous balance between his masters in Beijing who expect loyalty and his critics who are ever-watchful for any signs that the tycoon-turned-politician will betray the vows he made to Hong Kong and the world.

Profile: Chou En-lai »

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