China's decision to remove Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) leaves the territory in limbo and raises questions about its much-vaunted autonomy, analysts and commentators said yesterday.
Hong Kong newspapers all announced on Wednesday that Tung would be stepping down as chief executive this month, but Tung as well as the Hong Kong and Chinese governments have refused all comment.
China's handling of Tung's resignation more than two years before his term was due to expire was criticized in Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a system allowing the city a high degree of autonomy.
The South China Morning Post said the issue posed questions about Hong Kong's civil and economic freedoms, protected in the Basic Law mini-constitution under which the capitalist enclave returned to China.
"[This] could cast a shadow over the One Country, Two Systems concept," the paper's editorial said.
"If the central government effectively removes him from office, we will be further away from the idea of `Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong.'"
Christine Loh (陸恭蕙), convenor of independent think-tank Civic Exchange, described events as "Chinese political theatre at its most fascinating." "Nothing is what it seems. There is little transparency and accountability," Loh said in her daily newsletter.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover from Britain, the territory of 7 million people was allowed to run its own affairs for a period of 50 years. Commentators complained the news blackout and secretive handling of Tung's resignation was typical of a totalitarian state,not a modern capitalist society.
"This is what happens when you have a cockamamie system," broadcaster and pundit Steve Vines said on RTHK radio. "Nobody here is consulted, nobody is in the loop. It's no way of running [things]."
A senior Hong Kong government source said all news about Tung's future would come from the Chinese leadership.
"This has always been in China's hands -- they are his boss," said the source. "The news will come from them."
Newspapers on Wednesday reported that Tung would step down citing ill health and stress.
They said he had offered to quit many times during his eight gaffe-prone years clouded by economic recessions, huge rows over democratic reform, policy woes and perceived interference by Beijing.
Loh wondered whether the delay in China's confirmation indicated there had been squabbles over the terms of Tung's retirement.
"For someone in Tung's position to go, there has to be some negotiations on terms," she said. "The delay may signify negotiations have not been completed."
The delays served to highlight the failings of Tung's rule, she said.
"The danger in keeping silent for much longer is that it will be perceived as another crisis of governance ... except this time it will affect Beijing's handling of Hong Kong affairs," she said.
Senior politicians have been left guessing when Tung might go. Cabinet member Selina Chow (
Tung's possible early exit has been mooted since 2003 when his government was plunged into crisis after more than 500,000 people took to the streets to protest proposed anti-subversion laws proposed by China. His position was further weakened last year by a bruising battle with pro-democracy groups over the timing of democratic reforms. Another half million people marched through the streets last July to demand universal suffrage to elect Tung's successor in 2007.