03/10/2005, 00.00
HONG KONG - CHINA
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The (not so glorious) end to Tung Chee-hwa's political career

by Gianni Criveller

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Mondo e Missione) - Hong Kong's leader Tung Chee-hwa at 5:30 pm today announced that he was stepping down as the territory's Chief Executive thus ending days of speculation that had left the former British colony in a limbo.

Surprise and incredulity met the first rumours about the pending resignation of the first leader of what is now the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, rumours that had begun to circulate on the eve of Mr Tung's March 3 trip to Beijing.

Mr Tung's unwillingness to confirm or deny them added fuel to the speculations and turned the whole thing into some poor imitation of Chinese shadow theatre.

What was clear though was that behind the scenes complex manoeuvres were underway. Many questions would remain unresolved should Tung actually leave: How would he save face? How would his successor be selected? How long should the latter rule? Two years to complete Tung's mandate, or a new, five-year mandate (as Hong Kong's Basic Law demands)?

the answer to the first question cane when Mr Tung was gracefully spared embarrassment by being first appointed to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and then named to one of its vice-presidential posts. Normally, such appointments go to retiring mid-level officials to honour them for services rendered.

Ostensibly, health was the 'politically correct' reason for Tung's departure. Although not showing symptoms of any illness, Mr Tung, 68, has appeared tired and worn out in the last few months, worn out especially by the barrage of criticism coming from Beijing.

An odd and sad fate for a man who proved inadequate for the historic task to which he was called, a man who was more Catholic than the Pope, overzealous vis-à-vis his masters in Beijing to the point that he tried to anticipate their wishes.

But Tung's fall was not due to any of the many errors he made, nor to his inexperience, or authoritarian and father-knows-best leadership style, or his failure to be liked by the people of Hong Kong. No, he went because his masters needed a scapegoat.

For a long time, when he was firmly in charge, some of his closest aides suffered the same fate—people like Anson Chan, the popular Nº2 in the Hong Kong administration forced to resign in January 2001;  Regina Yip, the Territory's iron-handed 'Home Affairs Minister' who quit in July 2003; Antony Leung, Finance Minister, who resign amid a financial scandal (July 2003); Health Minister Yeoh Eng-kiong who left in July 2004 after being the only official to publicly assume responsibility for the controversial management of the SARS outbreak; Lam Woon-kwong,  the Civil Service Secretary, who quick in January of this year, officially because of a family scandal, but in fact because he and Chief Executive Tung did not meet eye to eye on some issues.

Tung's greatest failure came when he refused to step down after the two mass pro-democracy rallies held on July1, 2003 and 2004, rallies that saw much of Hong Kong take to the streets.

Tung Chee-hwa's demise followed that of his Beijing mentor, Jiang Zemin, China's former strongman. When Jiang gave up the post of president of the Chinese Communist Party's Military Commission in September 2004, he lost the remaining political influence he had . With Jiang's star fading, Tung became a non entity, a Mister Nobody to be rid off as soon as possible. And rid off he was.

In December, China's current President Hu Jintao on a visit to Macau publicly humiliated Tung. Vice-President Zeng Qinghong twice last January told him to correct his errors and improve his administration.

Although he put up a brave face, for Tung the writing on the wall was clear and his time was running out. Now, with no one to defend him in Beijing, time did run out.

The irony is that in the last few months things in Hong Kong were getting better. The economy was improving and the flood of criticism and reproofs against hinm had become a trickle.

Tung could have used the last two years in his mandate to regain some of his lost lustre, get something done, and leave a somewhat more positive legacy.

But he did not reckon with China's Communist regime, increasingly shaped by Hu Jintao, who like a wolf in sheep's clothing is more of a reactionary than a reformer, with a degree of cynicism that knows few boundaries.

However servile and zealous in doing the master's bid acolytes like Tung Chee-hwa may be, they are expendable should political circumstances require it.

Donald Tsang, Tung's number two, is his likely successor. A devout Catholic, savvier and more popular, he is also more liberal and more open to the Territory's democratic aspirations. He will however be held back by Beijing's tight leash.

It seems certain that he will be allowed to complete the last two years in Tung's mandate rather than govern for five as Hong Kong's Basic Law demands. More importantly, his margin of manoeuvre will be restricted.

The reason is obvious. Even though Beijing wants Hong Kong's next leader to be more competent and popular so as to ensure greater social stability, it also wants, as the current crisis shows, to exert more effective control over the Territory's affairs.

All in all, what recent events demonstrate is that the principles on which Hong Kong's political institutions rest—'one country, two systems', self-government and autonomy—are being chipped away.

They also show that the turning point in the Territory's political evolution could come in 2007, if elections were called—something that the Basic Law does not exclude. Thus the governed could choose those who would govern them. This, however, is destined to remain only a dream for many years to come.

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