Thu, Jul 10, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Tung's fate sealed by Article 23protests

DPA , HONG KONG

It is already being compared to the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in terms of its scale and social impact.

Others are calling it 701 -- a reference to the month and day of the protest march last week that brought 500,000 people onto the streets of Hong Kong.

The July 1 march has proved a seismic moment in Hong Kong's post-handover history. The demonstration of pure people power over the last week has now brought an arrogant and authoritarian leadership to the brink of collapse.

The national security law, seen by critics as draconian and the most serious threat to Hong Kong's freedoms since the territory was returned to Chinese sovereignty, has been derailed -- just two days before legislators were due to vote on it.

More significantly, Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed leader Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) -- a widely unpopular figure foisted on the Hong Kong people for a second five-year term only last year -- has been humiliated and his political career almost certainly ended.

Anyone in Tung's position should resign, said Allen Lee, a Hong Kong delegate to the National Peoples Congress in Beijing, as news of the government's retreat broke early on Monday. By Monday afternoon, it seemed only a matter of time.

A week ago, the political outlook had been distinctly different. There was to be a march and up to 100,000 were expected to take part.

At the time, Tung and his ministers insisted it would not delay legislation, with one of them, Secretary for Security Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀), suggesting many of the participants were just going along for a day out.

That day out turned into the biggest public protest in Hong Kong since 1989 when 1 million people thronged the streets following the Tiananmen Square massacre. July 1's sea of black shirts worn in protest at the national security law sent Tung a message he could not ignore.

Stunned into indecision, it then took four days before he was able to give a comprehensive response, announcing at a press conference three major concessions to the law.

Nevertheless, he continued to insist the legislation had to be put to the vote yesterday, describing it as a constitutional duty and a matter relating to the national dignity and glory of the Chinese race.

The decision to stand firm on the vote in the face of the protest was a fatal error. Already, James Tien (田北俊), leader of the Liberal Party and a member of Tung's inner circle, the Executive Council, had said he favored deferring the bill.

Tien had flown to Beijing where he said officials told him they would not object to a delay. He resigned Sunday evening and his party indicated they wanted the bill deferred, leaving Tung facing certain defeat if they pressed ahead with the legislation yesterday.

In the space of seven days, Tung has seen his traditional support base crumble. Always unpopular with the public, whose approval counts for little in a legislature that is only in part directly elected, he could always count on the backing of Beijing and Hong Kong's conservative business leaders.

Last week, however, visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) omitted the customary praise for Tung when he delivered a speech to mark the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule.

Later in the week, business tycoon Henry Fok reportedly cut portions of a pre-released speech at an anniversary dinner praising Tung for his leadership.

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