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Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003

Shy man performs historic balancing act


HONG KONG -- Because Hong Kong's leader tends to view the news media (local or otherwise) with the enthusiasm of a swimmer greeting a school of sharks, Tung Chee-hwa has scant hope of receiving his due as the historically pivotal man he is. His public image is generally terrible, and he is often portrayed in the media as a bumbling politician, the Hamlet of Hong Kong.

In truth, he is a hybrid of unfailing fidelity to his agitated countrymen in Hong Kong (the better to succeed in his job) and his ever-wary Beijing betters (a must in order to keep the job). His is one of the more difficult balancing acts around.

When this culturally conservative Chinese businessman was pressed into duty by Beijing in 1997 as the British governor exited the long-held crown colony, the international press portrayed the first "Chief Executive of the Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China" as the second coming of the Chinese Count Dracula. In fact, Tung possesses all the ferocity of a giant teddy bear and all the commitment to Marxist dogma of the average Hong Kong retailer.

He may be slow at making decisions and poor at announcing them, but earlier this month Tung revealed a new personal dimension by dramatically shelving a much-promoted new security-law proposal that had been months in the making and the target of great unease in the territory.

Tung's decision was so shocking that it made the front pages of many world newspapers that rarely cover Hong Kong. But those who were fortunate enough to have a private chat with him just days before he announced his decision in public had little doubt that he had changed his mind on the pending security law.

Tung is not for doing anything hurtful to the people of Hong Kong if he can persuade Beijing to lay off. The security-law effort had been blamed for unprecedented street protests. Hong Kong, keep in mind, is no Berkeley; people here tend to get far more excited about mall sales or mortgage rate hikes than political issues. But this summer, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in demonstrations that foreign media attributed to anger over the security-law proposal. In reality, Hong Kong's potpourri of unhappiness also took in the alarmingly soft economy and Tung's lackluster administration.

These protests turned into the largest in China since the notorious 1989 Tiananmen Square tragedy, which triggered a bloody Beijing crackdown and set China back for years. More like a Washington civil rights march or a huge Asian block party, these demonstrations were not scary like Tiananmen's.

Not a single arrest was made -- a blissful exception to China's long, violence-prone history. Tung, however, was personally shaken by the protests and on reflection came to understand that they were good for Hong Kong -- and that the security law had to be put on the shelf.

A political conservative, Tung favored the new law, but he did not favor going against the popular grain of the people he loved -- and certainly not with local legislative elections in the wings. So he invoked the one principle from which Beijing, he surmised, would never back down from: "one country, two systems." Hong Kong, he said, needed more time on its own to work through this issue.

Tung guessed right: Beijing is committed to one country, two systems. That's the official policy, a crown-jewel legacy from the late Deng Xiaoping, the founder of today's modernizing China, without whose reforms the mainland would today be hopelessly lost. The one country, two systems maxim also holds the key to winning back offshore Taiwan, the next big prize on Beijing's "Mother China" consolidation journey.

For such reasons, Beijing reluctantly concurred, and Tung breathed easier. He would be the last to say it, but relations between Hong Kong and the mainland since 1997 haven't always been sweet or light or fun. Tung would be the first to admit he has lost more than a bit of sleep -- and gained a few pounds! But now it seems all worth it. This shy man is working not only to keep Hong Kong on track but also helping China to transform itself. After all, listening to the voice of the people -- instead of stifling it -- is one of the defining traits of democracy.

To be sure, China has a journey of many thousands of miles before it approaches democracy, a development devoutly to be wished for in the West. But Hong Kong, led by a man often criticized for not being a leader, is luring China precisely in that direction. History will note Tung as something special.

Tom Plate is a UCLA professor and director of the nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Network. His column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inter national.


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