Hong Kong’s chief executive, Mr. Tung Chee-hwa, resigned last week. His departure was in keeping with his entire term as chief executive: confused, messy and ultimately damaging to his office and Hong Kong itself. His replacement must break that tradition and restore the luster to Hong Kong’s image. It is a difficult task that requires a keen sensitivity to political realities in Beijing while respecting democratic aspirations at home. Nonetheless, looking back at Mr. Tung’s tenure, it is clear that a better balance can be struck.
Mr. Tung was a surprise choice for chief executive. He is a Western-educated shipping tycoon who had no political experience when he was picked by Beijing to lead the Special Administrative Region (or SAR as Hong Kong is officially known) after it was returned to China in 1997. Although he was a political neophyte, he was not unknown in Beijing: The family business had been bailed out by the mainland in the 1980s after experiencing financial trouble. That history suggested that Mr. Tung might be overly sensitive to Beijing’s wishes when dealing with certain issues, especially the question of how much democracy was appropriate for Hong Kong.
Upon taking office, Mr. Tung was seen as a reassuring grandfatherly figure, a much-needed quality amid the uncertainties of the handover. We will never know how much credit Mr. Tung deserves for helping ease anxieties at that time, but he lost his soothing touch soon after.
The troubles were not his fault. Shortly after he took office, Hong Kong was dealing with the fallout of the Asian Financial Crisis. As the SAR regained its footing, SARS hit Hong Kong, and the way the disease was handled made the government look ineffectual and inept. Throughout his term in office, Hong Kong suffered from mounting economic woes, ranging from falling property values to rising unemployment. Yet Mr. Tung appeared slow to respond when there was trouble, and his first instinct was to look to Beijing for guidance. While that may have been understandable given political realities in Hong Kong, it also appeared to undermine the promise of “one country, two systems,” which was designed to insulate Hong Kong from mainland pressure.
The final blow was the number of huge prodemocracy demonstrations that filled the streets in 2003 and 2004. Long thought to be indifferent to politics, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong’s citizens took to the streets in protest against their government’s policies. Plainly, Mr. Tung had lost the trust of the people. In December of last year, Chinese President Hu Jintao criticized Mr. Tung in public; at that point, the writing appeared to be on the wall.
Rumors began a few weeks ago that he would become a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a high-level advisory group in Beijing, and would step down as chief executive. Mr. Tung never responded to the news, making it appear as though top political decisions were once again being made behind the scenes and in Beijing. The uncertainty compounded doubts about Hong Kong’s autonomy. Earlier last week, the rumors were confirmed, but Mr. Tung said he was resigning for health reasons, and denied speculation that Beijing’s loss of faith was behind his decision to step down.
Mr. Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s second ranking official, will take over. Mr. Tsang can serve for up to six months, or until a replacement is chosen by the Electoral Committee, a group of 800 prominent Hong Kong residents. By stepping down now, Mr. Tung ensures that the current Electoral Committee, which is loyal to Beijing, picks his successor; a new committee will be elected this summer.
Mr. Tsang must regain the confidence of Hong Kong citizens in their own government. Few of Hong Kong’s public servants are more qualified. As finance secretary, he fought off attacks on the Hong Kong dollar after the 1997 financial crisis. But competence is not enough. He must also show the people of Hong Kong that he will put their interests first. At the very same time, he must maintain the confidence of the Chinese government in Beijing. He cannot afford to ignore them either. It is a difficult balancing act.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of finding the right replacement for Mr. Tung. A leader is needed who can restore confidence in the SAR; that is sorely needed to stabilize Hong Kong and provide a foundation for its future. But there is far more at stake here than Beijing’s respect for democracy or the SAR’s economic outlook. China agreed to protect Hong Kong’s independence during the reversion talks; in other words, the issue is whether Beijing honors its international commitments. Moreover, the Hong Kong experiment is held out as a model for Taiwan. Beijing should recognize that the world is looking at the SAR for clues about how a rising China will behave.
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