Hong Kong's Leader Resigns

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa waves after announcing his resignation two years early for health reasons. Chief Secretary Donald Tsang is expected to succeed him.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa waves after announcing his resignation two years early for health reasons. Chief Secretary Donald Tsang is expected to succeed him. (Dennis Owen - Bloomberg News)

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 11, 2005

BEIJING, March 10 -- Hong Kong's unpopular chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, submitted his resignation to the Chinese government Thursday, ending his difficult tenure as the territory's first post-colonial leader and leaving China with the delicate task of picking a successor despite public demands for direct elections.

Tung cited strains on his health as the reason for his abrupt departure two years before the end of his second term. Speaking at a news conference in Hong Kong, he dismissed any suggestion that he had been forced to resign by the Communist leadership, which has been tightening control over the former British colony to counter a growing democracy movement.

"The real issue is that I will be 68 years old in three months," Tung said, adding that he took painkillers so he could stand through an hour-long speech in January. "I think it's better for me to step aside and to have another person carry this thing through."

The announcement ended more than a week of awkward uncertainty during which Tung refused to comment on reports he was planning to step down. The silence reinforced Tung's image as a rigid politician, loyal to the leadership in Beijing but out of touch with the people of Hong Kong.

Although the Chinese government stood behind Tung through a series of crises over the past eight years, including mass protests demanding democratic reforms, it is expected to accept his resignation and appoint him to a national advisory body as a face-saving gesture in the next few days.

The sudden reversal comes as Tung's chief political patron in Beijing, former president Jiang Zemin, is retiring from his final government post and just months after Jiang's chosen successor, Hu Jintao, publicly reprimanded Tung and urged him to do a better job.

Under Hong Kong law, an 800-member Electoral Committee composed of business figures, professionals and politicians must meet within 120 days to select Tung's successor. Because the committee is stacked with Beijing's allies, it will almost certainly approve whomever the Communist leadership nominates.

People familiar with the deliberations said the leadership was prepared to endorse the candidacy of Chief Secretary Donald Tsang, a career civil servant who defended Beijing's unpopular decision last year against direct elections to choose Hong Kong's next chief executive.

Tsang, 60, is known as a skilled bureaucrat who was knighted in the final days of British rule. In 1995, he became the first Chinese to serve as Hong Kong's financial secretary, then stayed on in that job after the territory's return to China.

Tsang's modest background -- he is the son of a policeman and rose through the civil service without a college degree -- stands in contrast to the résumés of other contenders for Tung's job, many of whom are members of Hong Kong's wealthiest families.

Tsang enjoys greater popular support than Tung, a wealthy shipping magnate. But members of Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition have criticized him for deference both to Beijing and powerful industrialists.

Several mainland officials and members of Hong Kong's pro-Beijing parties have also expressed reservations about Tsang, noting his long career with the former colonial government and his Catholic faith.

Some have urged the leadership to appoint Tsang to fill only the remaining two years of Tung's term, instead of naming him to a regular five-year term. That would allow Beijing to appease factions that support other candidates, but it would also force China to find a way to overrule Hong Kong's constitution and trigger a new debate about the erosion of the autonomy promised the territory after its return to Chinese rule.

Ronny Tong, a pro-democracy legislator, warned that China's "one country, two systems" policy would be "in imminent danger of failing" if Beijing stepped in and mandated a two-year term for the next chief executive.

Special correspondent K.C. Ng in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa waves after announcing his resignation two years early for health reasons. Chief Secretary Donald Tsang is expected to succeed him.


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