Smooth Operator Takes Helm in Hong Kong

Donald Tsang will be acting chief executive of Hong Kong until July.
Donald Tsang will be acting chief executive of Hong Kong until July. (Vincent Yu - AP)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 15, 2005

HONG KONG, March 14 -- His trademark bow tie was burgundy and gray, with a matching handkerchief pointing from the breast pocket of a three-piece suit. Donald Tsang laid out his goals as Hong Kong's new leader in the language of a practiced British bureaucrat, in which no problem seems beyond solution if the right committee is formed.

Tsang, who has a reputation as a natty dresser and smooth operator, met with foreign correspondents Monday, two days after taking over as this enclave's acting chief executive. He sought to reassure the world that Hong Kong is still on the path to rule by law and greater democracy despite the bumpy departure of his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, and a growing impression that China's central government is running things here with ever-tighter controls.

"There is absolutely no conspiracy in all this," Tsang declared.

After ignoring a week of leaks from Beijing that he was about to resign, Tung went to the capital on Thursday and made it official, citing poor health. The leadership did nothing to discourage him. So Tsang, as No. 2 in the hierarchy, became Hong Kong's acting leader on Saturday, pending the selection of a permanent chief executive by an 800-member committee.

Born in Hong Kong, Tsang is a longtime civil servant with a wide circle of friends. Officials in Beijing and political figures here say he has the skills to deal with tensions between the Chinese leadership and activists who demand direct elections. With the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the government promised a measure of autonomy under a policy referred to as one country, two systems.

"He was brought up in Hong Kong," said Emily Lau, a legislator who heads the pro-democracy Frontier party, which strongly opposed Tung. "He knows what Hong Kong people want and how they think."

Although Tung had gained a reputation as a faithful subordinate to the central government, his departure was widely interpreted in Hong Kong as a bow to decisions made in Beijing. The Shanghai-born shipping tycoon, tapped by Beijing in 1997, was seen here as out of touch and politically maladroit. Although he was their pick originally, China's leaders apparently came to agree: President Hu Jintao dressed him down two months ago at a televised meeting in nearby Macau.

Despite a widespread perception in Hong Kong that Tsang has already been anointed in Beijing to become the permanent chief executive, he would not say whether he wants the job. His only goals as acting leader, he said, would be keeping Hong Kong's economic recovery on track and preparing for a smooth vote by the electoral committee in July.

"My mind is totally occupied, and my time is totally occupied, with making sure the electoral arrangements are in place," he added.

The electoral committee, with members chosen from various sectors of Hong Kong society, followed Beijing's guidance in picking Tung and is likely to do the same in picking his successor.

True to his self-declared instinct for caution, Tsang declined to say whether the Communist Party leadership in Beijing had given him reason to believe he would be picked on July 10 to serve the remaining two years of Tung's second term. Analysts here and in Beijing said that would give Hu's government time to test Tsang before granting him a full five-year term beginning in 2007.

Previous interpretations of Hong Kong's Basic Law -- the one-country, two-systems understanding reached with departing British colonial authorities in 1997 -- had held that any new term would be five years. Opposition political figures here allege that Beijing leaders are reinterpreting the law to suit their plans for Tsang. Some have pledged to challenge the procedure in court.

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