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Friday, June 29, 2007

Chief executive who serves two masters

This is the first in a series of columns on the political and economic status of Hong Kong. On Sunday, the former British crown colony will mark its 10th anniversary as a special province of China.

HONG KONG — I don't envy Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang. He's about to commence his second term in the service of a pair of competing masters: One is the territory's people, evolving legislature and punchy news media; the other is Master Beijing.

With the 10th anniversary of this relatively new and wholly historic arrangement called "one country, two systems" coming up this weekend, it seemed a good time to check in with the chief executive. I found him psyched up about the handover anniversary, though well aware about Hong Kong's intense roller-coaster ride since 1997.

"We have had the Asian financial crisis, the collapse of our property market, the Asian flu, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)," Tsang said. "This was all a real test over uncharted waters. But we made it through it all, intact."

His job is so much different from that of his masters up north, who have their news media under firm control. By contrast, Hong Kong's media have always proven delightfully uncontrollable, and probably always will be — at least I hope so.

Tsang, not a physically large person, is always seen with his trademark bow tie. I hope he doesn't get ground down by the realities of having to serve two masters — including a demanding media. "Of course," he said. "If you are on the receiving end of media criticism, you might feel that way!"

Sure, some of Hong Kong's problems can be fixed by whip-smart policy brainiacs like Tsang; but many of the problems require very close cooperation with neighbors who may have different agendas. The mainland itself can be part of the problem, or sometimes it can be part of the solution.

"On health and communicable diseases," Tsang said, "Beijing is acutely aware of the need for early detection and reporting, but it is a big and poor country. I'm soon seeing China's minister of health about this."

Ditto with the economy: When Hong Kong was handed back to Beijing, all the Western press could seem to bring itself to obsess over was the sorts of terrible things that the big mean mainland might do to tiny Hong Kong.

No one anticipated that a more important threat would have come from diseased national currencies in Asia (China's yuan not included), and from the machinations of predatory speculative funds from the West. On this matter, Tsang was properly blunt: "We have demonstrated that this government won't sit on its hands in the face of adversity. I don't see a new Asian financial crisis brewing yet, but there are [economic and financial] imbalances all over the place."

At the same time, Tsang frets about potential deterioration in the U.S.-China relationship, in which Hong Kong has an obviously big stake. That the bilateral trade-gap issue has become so politicized he finds deplorable: "There's a continuous bashing [of China] from Congress. This is most unfortunate. It is tragic when politicians look at economic issues in narrow ways — to look only at the trade imbalance. To pin the blame for it on China is wrong."

A recent interview in another newspaper made the chief executive look slightly silly for appearing to set population-expansion goals for an already teeming Hong Kong. The low fertility rate and rising average age throughout the region bother leaders besides Tsang.

In fact, his own thoughtful analysis brings him to the conclusion that somehow Hong Kong will need to accommodate more trained and talented workers in order to stay competitive with rival cities. It may even have to top off at about 10 million people. "But that's not my population target," he said. "No one in his right mind would say that."

To prove or disprove the validity of the formula of "one country, two systems" — as conjured up by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping at the height of his power — is no easy job. In Tsang's case, it takes catering to two very different masters. History will tell us if he can do it.

To Hong Kong's credit — and to Beijing's as well — the deal seems to have worked so far. That's why the anniversary celebration is noteworthy.

"July 1 will be quite a big event for us," Tsang said. "Even in the expansive Chinese sense of time, ten years is a landmark." Indeed.

UCLA professor and American journalist Tom Plate first reported on Hong Kong in his column in May 1997. Copyright Tom Plate 2007

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