Embattled Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) won praise yesterday from state-run Chinese media over his pledge to reform and listen to the people after mass protests over a national security bill threw the government into crisis.
But Tung's many critics in Hong Kong say they doubt whether he can change and govern effectively. A protest July 1 by a half million people made clear that Tung has serious problems with public trust, and forced him to delay the anti-subversion bill.
Tung ruled out resigning Thursday night. An editorial in the Hong Kong edition of the China Daily lauding his "brave choice" to recover from past mistakes indicates Beijing's support, although the central government has so far said little about the situation.
It appears unlikely Tung, who is also facing a staggering economy, will be brought down anytime soon by the crisis that has thrust both Hong Kong and Beijing into uncharted territory.
"We're at that space where nobody can move right now," said commentator Christine Loh, a government critic. "Mr. Tung is the wild card. Every utterance, every step he makes, everything that is thrown in his path could become another crisis. We're in permanent crisis mode."
What may be the most crucial factor in the unfolding drama has yet to be known -- the response of China's new government under President Hu Jintao (
Tung is heading to Beijing today to consult with the central government, though analysts here are not expecting any dramatic announcements.
Tung has thus far enjoyed support from Beijing, which picked him to lead Hong Kong when it was returned from Britain to China on July 1, 1997.
His opponents said yesterday they didn't believe his promise to become more accountable -- something they have heard before, albeit at times when Tung was not in such deep trouble.
"It was just lip service," said Wong Sing-chi, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party. "His office has long known to be a black hole: Any suggestions that are going in won't have a chance to return and get used."
Although Hong Kong is required to outlaw subversion and other crimes against the state, critics say Tung's government went way too far with a measure they called an assault on the territory's freedoms, guaranteed in its mini-constitution.
It imposed life in prison for some offenses and stirred fears the bill could introduce mainland-style suppression that would muzzle journalists, the Falun Gong spiritual group and others.
The controversy drew the biggest protest here since 1 million people turned out after the deadly crackdown on China's Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement on June 4, 1989. Tung said it left him "sleepless."
"In the past six years, I have made mistakes," Tung told the news conference. "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."
The China Daily urged him yesterday to "take advantage of the wisdom outside the government" as he moves forward.
The situation exploded anew Wednesday night with the resignations of Tung's security and finance chiefs. That leaves Tung with two huge holes in his government -- secretaries whose jobs encompass areas crucial in Beijing's eyes.