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    Greater China
     Mar 12, 2005
COMMENTARY
Let us now praise Tung Chee-hwa
By Todd Crowell

HONG KONG - I confess I always had a soft spot for Tung Chee-hwa. I think it originated when I followed him around during the weeks preceding his selection as Hong Kong's first Chinese chief executive in the fall of 1996. I remember him standing outside one of the flophouses in Mongkok where the cage men live in wire cages as in dog kennels. He was obviously moved by what he saw. Standing before a clutch of reporters, he said, "It was worse than I imagined."

That underscored, for me at least, one of his fundamental strengths, the fact that he is a decent man, a quality that seemed to be accentuated by his broad, honest, friendly face and unstylish crew cut. It is a quality that is rare, it not impossible to find, among political leaders. It is refreshing, even heart-warming to see it.

It may well be that he was a little too decent for the position he was thrust into. One of the many criticisms of his administration was that he never fired anyone, most notably the former financial secretary Antony Leung after he had purchased a luxury car, knowing in advance he was going to raise the tax on autos. Any other democratic leader would have wasted little time giving Leung the heave.

We Western expat journalists never cut Tung much slack from the beginning. Not long after the handover in 1997 from Britain back to China, he had said some words to the affect that he admired the governing style of Singapore's longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew, the bete noire of most Western journalists in Asia. That probably cooked things for him on that front.

Moreover, Tung had the misfortune to follow in the footsteps of another, entirely different kind of politician, the last British governor of Hong Kong, Christopher ("call me Chris") Patten. He was a leader who probably represented the ideal for many of us and who also had caught the imagination of many of Hong Kong's Chinese residents as well.

In his governing style Tung never could strike the happy medium between being a mandarin, which was probably his natural bent, and a Western-style politician. He never seemed comfortable or authentic when his handlers thrust him into a crowded shopping mall in Kowloon so that photographers could take a picture of him munching custard tarts.

Then there was the embarrassing occasion when his handlers sent his wife Betty out to "reassure" scared victims of Amoy Gardens housing estate in the middle of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis; she was fully armored in what looked like some kind of space suit. Tung might have worn better if he had succeeded the next-to-last British governor, the more retiring Sir David Wilson (who was replaced because his style didn't suit the British).

During the early years of his administration, Tung maintained respectable poll ratings, despite the economic hardships spawned by the Asian financial crisis (which broke out his second day in office). People were willing to cut him some slack despite such foul-ups as the bird flu scare, the bungled opening of the new airport, scandals in the public hospitals and a badly managed and later abandoned property scheme.

The new chief had one advantage: people believed he was trusted by Beijing, and thus well placed to insulate Hong Kong from overt interference by China. As the years passed and anxiety about mainland meddling receded, Hong Kongers, mired in more mundane concerns such as jobs and asset values, became less forgiving of their leader.

But in the longer term, Tung won't be judged on how he handled bird flu or SARS or the civil service or whether he was too beholden to local property tycoons, or all the other criticisms. His historic mission was to guide Hong Kong through the stormy early years of this unprecedented political experiment called "one-country, two systems". Judged from that perspective he hasn't done badly.

Either by calculation or serendipity - I suspect the latter - our chief played a pretty shrewd game. He issued a stern warning to the Falungong followers to obey the law and described them in the Legislative Council (Legco) as having aspects of an "evil cult", using the same language of Beijing. Of course, this infuriated liberals, democrats and a lot of expatriates. Yet the leaders in Beijing heard these worlds and thought, "our man in Hong Kong is sound", and leave Hong Kong alone.

One can easily imagine what Chris Patten would have done in similar circumstances. He would have gone on the radio and issued a blistering attack on China's persecution of peaceful religions and praised how things were done differently in Hong Kong. Beijing would have seethed. Yet in the end the outcome would have been the same: the Falungong would go on doing legally in Hong Kong what the group would be arrested for doing in Tiananmen Square.

It has been years since the name Tung Chee-hwa has appeared in print or heard on the airwaves without the prefix "beleaguered", "bungling" or "unpopular" attached to it. According to Hong Kong University, only about 16% of Hong Kong people would vote to retain Tung if they had a chance. That puts him down in the range of Richard Nixon when he resigned in 1974, or along with some of the more hapless Japanese prime ministers of recent years.

Hong Kong does not elect its chief executive, so Tung hung on. But ever the Confucian gentleman, Tung knew that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn after he was publicly berated last December in Macau by Chinese President Hu Jintao. The only thing left was a face-saving way to ease him out of office and make way for somebody more attuned to Hong Kong's current realities, someone with perhaps a few more political skills if not charisma.

Before the handover in 1997, the conventional wisdom held that Hong Kong, being a "purely" economic entity, should have as its first chief executive somebody with a lot of business experience, somebody who was plugged into the business community. As a scion of a wealthy shipping family, Tung seemed to fit the bill. That was a costly mistake. Hong Kong has more than enough people with business savvy to weather the economic tempests of recent years. What it lacks are good politicians.

Hong Kong, post-handover, has proven itself to be very much a political organism. By some estimates an average of 20 public protests of various sizes and stripes take place every day. Hong Kong needs somebody at the helm with considerably more political suppleness than Tung ever displayed. That is why the denouement and early retirement - kicked upstairs by Beijing to a ceremonial post on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference - is a merciful outcome - for him and for Hong Kong.

Todd Crowell is the author of Farewell My Colony: Last Days of British Hong Kong. He comments on Asian affairs at www.asiacable.blogspot.com .

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