When shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa took office as Hong Kong's chief executive in 1997, he refused to occupy the spacious white mansion built for Britain's colonial governors.
It would have sent the wrong message, he told a small group of foreign journalists invited to join him for lunch today in the mansion's elegant dining room. "I wanted to make a statement that I was not sent here to run things by London or Beijing," he said. "I am a servant. . . . I am here to serve the public."
So far, though, the public is not convinced. Tung--who was appointed by Communist Party officials in Beijing, not by voters in Hong Kong--is widely regarded here as a genial, if sometimes clumsy, caretaker who takes direction from the mainland.
Tung's handling of several recent disputes involving immigration, freedom of speech and political rallies honoring victims of the June 1989 crackdown on democracy demonstrators near Beijing's Tiananmen Square has only heightened skepticism.
The latest of these controversies flared last week when a top legislator from the opposition Democratic Party charged that Tung had instructed him in April to stop holding candlelight rallies in memory of the Tiananmen victims. Democratic Party leaders saw Tung's comments as an affront to freedom of speech; Tung said he had merely suggested that it was time for Hong Kong residents and political leaders to "put down the baggage" of the Tiananmen killings.
But at lunch today, he declined to explain what he meant by that phrase. "My style is never to be very specific in this sort of area," he said.
Tung has stepped up efforts to soften his image and win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong residents. In his third annual policy speech last week, he stressed social and pocketbook issues geared to the concerns of ordinary citizens. He outlined a $4 billion package of environmental initiatives over the next 10 years to make Hong Kong "a green model for Asia." He also called for far-reaching improvements in Hong Kong's educational system, discussed proposals for urban renewal and hinted that Hong Kong is on the verge of concluding a deal with the Walt Disney Co. to open a new theme park here that would generate tens of thousands of new jobs.
At today's lunch, Tung insisted that his style and policies enjoy much broader support among Hong Kong residents than he gets credit for in the local press. He argued that public satisfaction with government policies is bound to improve as the economy, which he predicted would grow a healthy 2 percent during the last half of this year, begins to recover. "Things are all beginning to work," he declared.
Tung said now that the Asian financial crisis has run its course, the government finally can work on implementing a long-term strategy that will prevent it from losing business opportunities to rival ports, such as Shanghai and Singapore. Tung has described that vision for the city's future as transforming Hong Kong into a "world class" cosmopolitan center, "like London or New York."
The Disney deal, which is expected to be unveiled by the end of this month, would go a long way toward that goal. Hong Kong's tourism industry has been hit hard by the financial crisis and is only now beginning to revive. Hong Kong's economy shrank 5.1 percent in 1998, and unemployment still hovers around 6.1 percent.
Tung and leaders of the business community have said they fear that the air quality here has deteriorated so badly that it has become a deterrent to tourists and prospective workers alike.
CAPTION: Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa says he wants to improve education and the environment in Hong Kong now that the Asian economy is recovering.