Sun, Dec 26, 2004 - Page 4 News List

HK's Tung has worst week ever

LAME DUCK After criticism from Hu Jintao, and losing a lawsuit over a US$3 billion property deal, Hong Kong's leader's troubles are multiplying


Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) just had one of the worst weeks of his tumultuous tenure as Hong Kong's leader, and some analysts are warning that his last two and a half years in office will be even rockier.

This week, Tung got publicly thumped by two people on the opposite ends of the power spectrum: his boss, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), and a little old lady who lives in public housing.

Tung has long enjoyed the Chinese leadership's support. Beijing gave him the job of running Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to China's rule in 1997.

Beijing continued to back him as once-booming Hong Kong slipped into recession, and Tung -- a millionaire scion of a Shanghai shipping family -- struggled to connect with the common people and unite his government. He has also opposed a campaign for more democracy.

So many were surprised Monday when Hu lined up Tung and his top officials on a red carpet and told them to cooperate, learn from their experience and do a better job governing Hong Kong _ words that were widely interpreted as Beijing's cryptic way of scolding Tung.

Tung insisted that Hu was only encouraging him and that his government was not in a crisis. "I hope I don't disappoint you again by telling you it was not a dressing down," he told reporters.

The incident came just a day after Tung's administration suffered a blow delivered by a 67-year-old low-income housing tenant, Lo Siu-lan, whose prune-like face with brown-framed glasses has been in the papers almost daily in the past week.

Lo embarrassed the government by filing a lawsuit that blocked what would have been the world's largest property trust. It involved a US$3 billion stock offering for the government's sale of 151 shopping centers and 79,000 parking spaces.

Just hours before the stock was to be listed, the government decided Sunday night to shelve it until all legal issues were sorted out. Lo alleges that the deal violates the housing code by privatizing 180 parking lots and shops through the trust.

Some editorial writers held up the deal as another example of bungling by Tung's government. Others worried that the debacle would hurt Hong Kong's standing as a global financial hub.

Some might question whether a strong leader is needed in Hong Kong -- a freewheeling global hub of capitalism that might be best off without bureaucrats or politicians messing with the economic engine.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong, said that the hands-off approach was once best for Hong Kong. But he said times have changed and the territory needs competent leadership to guide it through a more complex world.

"This is a rather critical moment," Cheng said. "The economy is in the process of restructuring, therefore people expect leadership to restore Hong Kong's competitiveness."

Cheng said that Tung could salvage his political reputation and win back some public support by widening his circle of advisers and starting a dialogue with the opposition.

But the scholar has little confidence that Tung will improve because he'll be treated like a lame duck and his government will be plagued with even more infighting.

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