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Hong Kong Protestors Demand Resignation of Chief Executive - 2003-07-10


Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Hong Kong Wednesday night, for the second mass demonstration of public discontent in two weeks. Protesters are not only demanding that controversial proposals for anti-subversion laws be dropped, they are also demanding Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa resign from office. Tung Chee-hwa caught Beijing's attention well before Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China in 1997.

"He has been on the Executive Council of the colonial British Hong Kong government, and he has developed a very good working relationship with the Beijing government," said Professor Albert Chan, of Hong Kong University Law School, who added that he had distinguished himself in the eyes of both countries.

Mr. Tung's close relationship to Beijing became apparent in 1995, when then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin singled him out for a high-profile handshake at a state gathering.

Mr. Tung, like Mr. Jiang, is from Shanghai. He was born there in 1937, the son of shipping magnate C. Y Tung. The family fled to Hong Kong after the 1949 Communist victory in mainland China.

Tung Chee-hwa attended university in England and spent several years in the United States. In 1979, 10 years after his return to Hong Kong, he took over as chairman of his father's shipping business, called Orient Overseas Container Line.

In 1986, when that business ran into serious financial trouble, the Beijing government backed a bailout investment worth nearly $200 million, cementing Mr. Tung's ties of loyalty to the Chinese government.

Mr. Tung tailored many of his public statements for Beijing's consumption, referring to Chinese values and national objectives first, and Western-style democratic values second.

When Mr. Tung accepted the position of chief executive of Hong Kong in 1997, he had served in several government advisory capacities, including a council that drafted the territory's post-handover constitution, known as the Basic Law.

The Basic Law enshrines fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion in Hong Kong. Mr. Tung defended those freedoms early in his first term, when he said publicly he would never allow a Tiananmen-style massacre to happen in Hong Kong.

But since then he has been perceived as being unresponsive to the public and indecisive.

Mr. Tung's former second-in-command, Anson Chan, once complained that her boss didn't have a good command of politics. And Christine Loh, founder of the Hong Kong public interest group Civic Exchange, agrees that he tends to run Hong Kong like a business. "I don't think he necessarily sees himself as running Hong Kong like a private business, but because he's never really had any political or public administration hands-on experience, he probably didn't know anything else," she said. "… People said that he seldom made decisions quickly and delegated them so that somebody could go and implement them, and therefore fairly simple things could take a long time."

Mr. Tung's administration was challenged early on by the 1997 financial crisis that struck the entire Asia-Pacific region. Then he faced two medical emergencies: an avian flu outbreak that peaked in 1998, and most recently, the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

With SARS this year, the government was sharply criticized for responding slowly.

Law Professor Chan says many people felt Mr. Tung was again unresponsive to public concerns, by not holding his staff accountable, especially the health secretary, who was blamed for the slow response.

"He was accused of not taking prompt action when SARS first broke out in Hong Kong, [even] though he could be held responsible for SARS spreading so quickly," he said. "And, Mr. Tung did not appoint any independent body to look into this matter." Mr. Tung has faced his toughest political crisis yet over proposed anti-subversion legislation, known as Article 23 laws. There is widespread opposition to the laws, which many say will endanger Hong Kong's civil liberties. When Mr. Tung refused to delay or drop passage of the laws, half a million people marched in protest on July 1.

Mr. Tung has since amended and delayed passage of the laws. But organizers of a second protest on July 9 say Mr. Tung and his government simply cannot be trusted with such sensitive legislation. They are demanding that Mr. Tung step down.

Beijing has taken a hands off approach on whether Mr. Tung should stay or go, but China researcher Jean Pierre Cabestan says the question is probably being discussed behind closed doors.

"I think the debate is going on in China," said Mr. Cabestan. "The question being, when is the best time to replace Tung, and who to put in his place."

Chris Yeung, an editor-at-large with Hong Kong's largest English language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, says despite the protests, people do not feel personal animosity toward Mr. Tung.

"I think even six years on, I think people still think he's not a bad guy, he wants to do something good for Hong Kong," he commented. "But unfortunately he's simply not up to the job."

And for the time being, the people who want Mr. Tung to vacate the job are getting bolder and louder.

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