Change may herald tighter control
Commentary by Willy Lam for CNN
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- The widely expected departure of Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa may enable China's special administrative region (SAR) to have a fresh start, after more than seven years of inefficient and unimaginative rule.
However, given Beijing's fear of instability following the resignation of the beleaguered Tung, China's control over the SAR will likely be even tighter than before.
Beijing and Hong Kong political sources said Tung decided to go after being publicly reprimanded by Hu Jintao late last year, when the Chinese President asked him to be better at "finding out deficiencies" in his administration.
It is understood Tung might cite heath reasons when, as expected, he announces his resignation at the end of the on-going session of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's highest advisory council.
The former shipping magnate is tipped to be made a CPPCC vice-chairman, a usual reward for retired senior Chinese officials.
The political sources said given Tung's unpopularity and the rising demand for universal suffrage-elections in Hong Kong -- which Beijing abhors -- the Hu administration was expected to stiffen the requirements for the next chief executive.
According to a cadre close to Beijing's Hong Kong policy establishment, President Hu had laid down five criteria for picking Tung's successor.
"The Hu leadership has indicated that the next Hong Kong chief executive must be acceptable to Beijing, to Hong Kong and to the international community," he said.
"He must also have high governance ability -- and there must be political and economic guarantees that he will fulfill his responsibilities well."
The cadre said Hu had pointed out at a Communist Party Central Committee session last (northern hemisphere) autumn that all regional officials must significantly "boost their governance ability".
And while former president Jiang Zemin, who handpicked Tung for his job in 1997 -- had tolerated the latter's lackluster performance -- Hu and ally Premier Wen Jiabao are known to be highly dissatisfied with the indecisive 67-year-old Hong Kong leader.
The cadre added that as for "political and economic guarantees," Beijing was looking for candidates who had a good record of loyalty to the central authorities or whose families and companies had substantial investments in Hong Kong and mainland China.
According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang will act as chief executive while a Beijing-appointed electoral college will pick Tung's successor within six months.
Both Tsang, a Harvard-trained career civil servant, and Financial Secretary Henry Tang, a former businessman, are considered front-runners for the SAR's highest post.
Given that senior Beijing officials have already refused to allow general elections to pick the chief executive or the majority of members of Hong Kong's legislature, pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong do not see Tung's early departure as a harbinger for a faster pace of democratization.
Chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party Lee Wing-tat said if Beijing were adamant about picking a loyal chief executive, "this will go against the principle of 'one country, two systems'," which late patriarch Deng Xiaoping had pledged for Hong Kong.
On the economic front, Tung's departure will ignite expectations that his successor may take more aggressive measures to foster new areas of growth.
While the local economy expanded by an estimated 8 percent in 2004, Hong Kong is facing increasing competition from coastal Chinese cities from Shanghai to Shenzhen.
Soon after Tung took over the SAR helm on July 1, 1997, the former businessman unveiled bold plans to develop areas ranging from IT and multi-media entertainment to herbal medicine. None of these ideas has taken off.
And Hong Kong has badly lagged behind Singapore in restructuring its economy to match the requirements of the high-tech and information age.
Much of the SAR's growth last year was due to closer integration with the China economy, including the massive flow of Chinese tourists to the former British colony.