Hong Kong Leader Gets Thumbs-Up From Beijing Despite Crises

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Hong Kong's embattled leader received a ringing endorsement from Beijing at the weekend, despite the growing demands at home for greater democratization, accompanied by calls for him to resign.

Tung Chee-hwa visited the Chinese capital to report on a series of recent crises and seek support from his superiors in the face of a deep crisis over attempts to pass a law critics fear will undermine Hong Kong's political, religious and media freedoms.

He got the desired backing, with both the Chinese president and premier showing their public support for the man Beijing handpicked to administer the enclave after Britain handed it over to China six years ago.

Analysts said the open support indicated that Tung would continue to govern Hong Kong, putting to rest earlier speculation that China may replace him.

Tung has seen his popularity levels slide over unhappiness with his governing style as well as his policies -- especially his determination to push ahead with controversial anti-subversion legislation.

After many months of growing discontent, massive street protests this month finally forced him to delay temporarily a vote on the security bill, which Beijing is especially keen to see enacted.

Despite the reversal, for many Hong Kong residents the episode has underlined the importance of pushing for greater democracy -- and in particular for the right to directly elect their leaders.

Increasingly, criticism is being leveled at the "one country, two systems" formula under which China guaranteed that Hong Kong would retain its capitalist way of life for 50 years after the handover.

Beijing has offered Taiwan a similar deal for unification, although many Taiwanese have pointed to Hong Kong's experience as clear evidence of why they should never accept.

In Beijing, Tung's Chinese hosts stressed that stability in Hong Kong was imperative if its economy was not to suffer.

President Hu Jintao also warned against what he called "foreign forces" interfering in Hong Kong's internal affairs.

That may refer to the considerable international concern -- mainly from Britain and the U.S. -- that has been voiced about the anti-subversion bill's potential impact on civil liberties.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is to pay a visit to the territory this week. Facing a crisis of his own at home over the Iraq war and associated intelligence matters, he may see the trip as a good opportunity to make a strong statement of support for freedom in Hong Kong.

Commenting on the demands in Hong Kong for greater democracy and universal suffrage by 2008, Hu cautioned that its political system "must develop in an incremental and gradual manner."

"Hong Kong can only maintain its favorable business environment if it can maintain social stability," he added.

He praised Tung, saying he had made "important contributions" to Hong Kong's prosperity and stability.

Even before the recent mass protests, support for Tung has been dropping steadily in monthly Hong Kong University polls, from 54.5 points at the beginning of last year to 35.2 this month.

In another new HKU poll, 9.2 percent of respondents declared themselves satisfied with the Hong Kong government; 65.2 percent were dissatisfied; and 21.6 were "half-half."

By contrast, at the beginning of last year, 23.5 percent of respondents were satisfied; 37.4 percent dissatisfied; and 36.6 half-half.

At a media conference in Beijing, Tung voiced satisfaction that Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao had "emphasized that they have total confidence in me and the [Hong Kong] government."

Some analysts believe China is reluctant to replace Tung because that would reflect badly on it for the decision to install him in the first place.

According to Christine Loh of the independent think tank Civic Exchange, Beijing also did not want to be seen to be bowing to public pressure.

Also, just one year after it confirmed Tung for a second, five-year term, China had not had time to sound out possible replacements for him.

"Hence, Beijing is doing what it knows best, which is to show the strongest symbolic support when it knows the cookie is crumbling, while thinking about what it can do without outright controlling Hong Kong, which would destroy 'one country, two systems.'"

Leadership woes

Returning from Beijing, Tung also faces the challenge of patching up his administration.

Two of his ministers, one of whom was closely associated with the anti-subversion law, resigned last week.

A third minister said at the weekend she was also leaving, to take up a World Health Organization position.

Tung has undertaken to consult more widely and to learn from his mistakes.

But with the anti-subversion bill only temporarily delayed -- China at the weekend said does expected the legislation eventually to be passed -- pro-democracy campaigners expect further protests in the future.

Because of his unpopularity, some politicians have suggested that Tung hand over actual decision-making to a deputy while he assumes a more ceremonial post.

Roh of the Civic Exchange pointed out that Hong Kong's constitutional framework is not designed to allow that to happen.

She said many in Hong Kong believed that Tung had "over the last six years been turning Hong Kong into something they don't recognize."

"His decisions indicate a low level of professionalism, impulsive decision-making, favoritism, elitist arrogance based on wealth and not ability, poor use of talent, and policy conservatism."

See also:
Ministers Resign but Hong Kong's Political Crisis Continues (July 16, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow