Chastened by angry street protests, embattled leader Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) admitted yesterday he'd made mistakes and asked for a second chance, promising to listen more to ordinary Hong Kong citizens about an anti-subversion bill that fueled their uproar.
Nevertheless, the political crisis facing his administration deepened with record unemployment figures announced less than 24 hours after two Cabinet members quit.
Tung, who is not popularly elected and who reports to China, heads to Beijing tomorrow to explain the unfolding drama to the central government while critics at home clamor for him to step down -- as his security chief and financial secretary did Wednesday.
Tung sought a fresh start at a news conference yesterday, ruling out suggestions that he resign but promising greater accountability.
He said he had been left "sleepless" by the rally that brought a half-million people to the streets July 1 to denounce an anti-subversion bill, demanded by Beijing, but slammed by critics here who say it would seriously erode Hong Kong's Western-style freedoms of speech and assembly.
"I was left sleepless the whole night," Tung said. "The public reminded me to adopt a more humble, sincere attitude to address their demands."
"In the past six years, I have made mistakes," Tung said. "I understand people's criticisms and discontent toward me. But faced with such criticisms, what should my attitude be? I think I should actively face them and make improvements."
Tung's political crisis has become a test of the "one country, two systems" model that China promised for Hong Kong when it was returned by Britain in 1997. The system has constitutional guarantees that Hong Kong people can enjoy Western-style civil liberties unheard of in mainland China but also requires the anti-subversion legislation that stirred the crisis here.
Critics say Tung has lost the ability to govern, but that Beijing authorities are unlikely to seek to remove him now.
"It's still not time for Tung to resign," said Ivan Choy of the City University of Hong Kong. "Beijing needs time to make decisions. If you have a political vacuum, it will take time to fill. Even if he tries to resign, I think Beijing would advise him not to do so."
A bad economy is aggravating matters. The fallout from Hong Kong's recent SARS outbreak has pushed pushed unemployment to a record 8.6 percent in the three months ending June 30, officials said yesterday.
Tung has yet to say how he will replace Secretary for Security Regina Ip (
Secretary of Economic Development and Labor Stephen Ip will replace Leung on an acting basis. There has been no word on a new security chief.
Ip was the key figure pushing the anti-subversion bill, although she said she quit for personal reasons. Leung stood down following revelations he could face criminal charges for buying a luxury car shortly before raising auto taxes, saving thousands of dollars.
Stocks fell on Leung's departure, with traders waiting to see whether Hong Kong's government can get back on track. The Hang Seng index lost 1.1 percent on the day.
Independent commentator Christine Loh said that removing Tung would present constitutional problems -- unless he dies or becomes ill.