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Hong Kong's Financial, Security Ministers Resign to Defuse Controversy - 2003-07-16

Two of Hong Kong's most unpopular government officials have resigned suddenly.

The resignations of Security Secretary Regina Ip and Financial Secretary Antony Leung were announced within hours of each other Wednesday.

They are the second and third top officials to quit since Hong Kong's government was plunged into a political crisis over a controversial national security bill, and over allegations that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's government is incompetent.

Ma Lik, a delegate to China's top lawmaking body and a supporter of Beijing, says Mr. Tung has been weakened by the resignations. He says Mr. Tung brought the crisis on by having Ms. Ip take the lead in promoting the security legislation.

"I always think it should be the whole cabinet, the whole government, to persuade the public, not just one or two secretaries to do that job," said Ma Lik.

One day before the resignations, a poll revealed that Ms. Ip's popularity had fallen below 35 percent, the lowest in the government. Mr. Leung, who has been involved in a tax scandal in recent months, scored only a point higher.

Ms. Ip was given the job of promoting the national security bill, but she was seen by many as arrogant and out of touch with public opinion.

Two weeks ago, as half a million people were preparing to protest the national security bill, Ms. Ip angered people by dismissing public fears that the bill would curtail freedoms.

Ms. Ip told reporters many people would join the march because it coincided with a public holiday and the weather was good.

When the July 1 protest took place, demonstrators carried effigies of Ms. Ip, portraying her as a sinister monster.

Following the protest, Mr. Tung at first tried to assuage public dissatisfaction by amending the more controversial passages to the security bill. But then he was forced by the resignation of a cabinet member to postpone the vote altogether.

Mr. Leung first came under fire in March when the media discovered he had purchased a luxury automobile just before introducing a tax increase on cars. He offered to resign when the scandal erupted, but Mr. Tung asked him to stay in office.

Mr. Leung, who announced his own resignation, gave no reason for the move. He is still facing a possible criminal prosecution over the car scandal.

Both Mr. Tung and Ms. Ip said she had actually offered her resignation on June 25, for "personal" reasons.

However, supporters and critics alike had urged Mr. Tung to eliminate the less-popular members of his cabinet in order to re-establish his credibility with the public. Miss Ip and Mr. Leung were at the top of the list of officials that people said should go.