Hong Kong

Tung Tied

Three years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, its political leadership is under fire for its performance and its response to polls criticizing Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Tung—a shipping tycoon handpicked by the Chinese Communist Party to lead the former British colony under the principle of “one country, two systems”—has been faulted for ineffectiveness during Hong Kong’s worst economic slump in decades, and is seen as acquiescent to Beijing’s wishes despite Hong Kong’s autonomy. He is up for a second five-year term in 2002, a bid backed by Beijing, according to the centrist South China Morning Post columnist Willy Wo-lap Lam.

“Despite Mr. Tung’s popularity having fallen to record low levels, [Chinese President] Jiang Zemin and his colleagues have expressed total trust in his ability. Since the spring, Beijing’s Liaison Office in the special autonomous region (SAR)...has orchestrated an elaborate campaign to bolster Mr. Tung’s status and image,” Lam wrote June 28. “And as the economic boundaries between the mainland and Hong Kong become even more blurred... the so-called sinicization of SAR politics also seems harder to avoid.”

Tung’s appointment by fiat left many Hong Kongers feeling that he is trying to stifle democratic reforms undertaken during the final British administration and is out of touch with everyday concerns.

“Advisers to [Tung] have realized that something needs to be done to turn present public sentiment around. And in spite of Tung Chee-hwa’s reserve and reluctance to go out and do a ‘walkabout,’ he visited a district in Kowloon [a section of Hong Kong] and even tasted an egg tart, just as the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, did,” said the independent Sing Tao Daily News (July 14).

At the root of Tung’s most recent troubles is a poll conducted after it was revealed that the government had scrapped its goal of building 85,000 new apartments a year—vital because of ruinously expensive housing costs. The public was not informed of the plan’s demise, leading to a headline in the independent Apple Daily (June 30): “Tung Chee-hwa Is Very Tricky.”

A poll on Tung’s performance by Robert Chung Ting-yiu of Hong Kong University resulted in the pollster being “warned through a ‘special channel’ that his opinion surveys showing Tung’s declining support were not welcome,” the Post reported July 7. There was speculation that Tung had backed the move. “It’s difficult to say that even if the third party were made public, that it would clear the chief executive and leave him clean and unsullied,” Sing Tao editorialized July 14. University of Hong Kong Vice Chancellor Cheng Yiu-chung was alleged to have issued the warning, but he declined to talk to the press, the Post reported  July 17.

Michael DeGolyer, a prominent academic who has studied Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule for many years, summed up Tung’s problems in a July 12 opinion piece in the English-language Hong Kong iMail, a sister publication to Sing Tao.

“Neither the pace of reforms nor the economic downturn lies at the taproot of his troubles, though they contribute. Much rests in the structures of government, which have been in reality very substantially changed since the handover, and which fail to give him the mandate and legitimacy he must have to push difficult reforms.”