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Chinese President Advises Hong Kong Leader to 'Listen to the People' - 2003-12-11

The president of China says he wants Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa to listen more closely to the people. Analysts are trying to determine if this means Beijing wants Mr. Tung to rebuild his public credibility or if China is ready to accept change and even greater democracy in the territory. Chinese President Hu Jintao recently told Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to "communicate better with the people" and "to draw on the wisdom of the masses."

Mr. Hu told Chief Executive Tung he was deeply worried about Hong Kong, especially its high unemployment level.

Although President Hu still supports Hong Kong's leader, many people think his comments were a rebuke.

Political scientist Michael DeGolyer at Hong Kong's Baptist University says Beijing is upset. He says that six months ago, the city saw mass protests, but there is little sign the people are any happier with the local government or Mr. Tung.

"The chief executive had a massive demonstration launched against him on the first of July," he said. "… Many were demanding democratization, a faster movement toward that. … And so constitutional reform is a very, very live issue in Hong Kong."

A half million people took to the streets on July 1, primarily to protest a Beijing-backed anti-subversion bill they feared would undermine the territory's basic freedoms.

Mr. Tung had pushed for the bill's passage and much of the anger over the legislation was directed at him. That same month, two of his ministers and one cabinet member resigned. In September, Mr. Tung indefinitely postponed further action on the bill.

Mr. Degolyer says the protest and public calls for Mr. Tung's resignation rattled Beijing. He says the central government blames much of the discontent on the city's persistently high unemployment and the economic downturn brought on by the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. "The central government is really concerned about stability, about prosperity, about performance … the assumption was that Hong Kong would continue to be an economic engine,' said Mr. Degolyer.

Mr. Degolyer says Beijing is worried because public faith in the administration has not been restored even as Hong Kong's economy shows signs of recovery. This was clear when one pro-China party, which has always backed Mr. Tung, suffered an embarrassing loss of seats in recent district elections. Opposition parties won more seats than expected.

Ma Lik, the new chairman of the city's largest pro-China party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, says Beijing is willing to accept changes to Hong Kong's political system so it may better reflect the people's desires.

"My party suffered from the performance of the government," he said. "So I really think President Hu's advice is very true. And I hope the government can change and we can change."

Mr. Ma says his party's senior members now believe Hong Kong's next leader should be directly elected in 2007. That is when Hong Kong's constitution, known as the Basic Law, allows significant change in the way the chief executive is selected.

Mr. Tung, a wealthy shipping tycoon, was singled out by Beijing to head Hong Kong after British colonial rule ended in 1997. An 800 person committee officially selected him, but almost all the members have ideological ties to Beijing or business interests in China.

Political science Professor Joseph Cheng at Hong Kong's City University says Beijing may be opening the door for more democracy. He says, however, the mainland government will probably want some conditions in place before elections are approved. For instance, Beijing probably would want to approve all candidates for the top job.

"Immediately after Tung's visit to Beijing … four [mainland] legal experts released an article warning Hong Kong people that the central government has a very central role to play in political reform in Hong Kong," he said.

Mr. Cheng speculates that Beijing wants to be involved because it fears losing influence over Hong Kong if the top post goes to a candidate with no links to the central government.