Saturday, March 12, 2005

Farewell to a Decent Man

I always had a soft spot for Tung Chee-hwa, who resigned as Hong Kong’s first Chinese Chief Executive, seven years after the handover to China and two years before the end of his second term. I remember him standing outside one of the flophouses in Mongkok where the cage men live in wire cages as in dog kennels. The rich scion of a wealthy shipping family was obviously moved by what he saw. Standing before a clutch of reporters, he said, “It was worse than I imagined.”

That underscored, for me at least, one of his fundamental strengths as Hong Kong’s first post-handover leader, the fact that he is a decent man, a quality that seemed to be accentuated by his broad, honest, friendly Chinese face and unstylish crew cut. It is a quality that is rare, it not impossible to find, among political leaders.

It may be that he was a little too decent for the position he was thrust in. One of the many criticisms of his administration was that he never fired anyone, most notably the former Financial Secretary, Anthony Leung, after he had purchased a luxury car knowing in advance that he was going to raise the tax on them. Any other democratic leader would have wasted little time giving Leung the heave.

Moreover, Tung, a complete political novice, had the misfortune to follow in the footsteps of a consummate politician with an entirely different governing style, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, Christopher (call me Chris) Patten. He was a master politician who probably represented the ideal for many expatriates and who also had caught the imagination of many of Hong Kong’s Chinese residents as well.

Tung couldn’t strike the happy medium between being a Mandarin, which was probably his natural bent, and a Western-style politician. He never seemed comfortable or authentic when his handlers thrust him into crowded shopping mall in Kowloon so that the photographers could take a picture of him munching custard egg tarts.

During the early years of his administration, Tung maintained respectable polls ratings despite the economic hardships spawned by the Asian Financial Crisis (which broke out his second day in office). People were willing to give him a chance despite such foul-ups as the bird flu scare, a bungled opening of the new airport, scandals in the public hospitals and a badly managed and later abandoned scheme to reduce property prices.

The new chief had one advantage: people believed he was trusted by Beijing, and thus in a position to insulate Hong Kong from overt interference by China. As the years passed and anxiety about mainland meddling receded, Hong Kongers, mired in more mundane concerns such as jobs and asset values, became less forgiving of their leader, and his approval ratings sank into the cellar.

But in the long term, Tung won’t be judged on how he handled bird flu or SARS or the civil service or whether he was too beholden to local property tycoons, or all the other things people held against him. His historic mission was to guide Hong Kong through the stormy early years of this unprecedented political experiment called “one-country, two systems.” Judged from that perspective he hasn’t done badly.

Either by calculation or serendipity – I suspect the latter – the Chief played a pretty shrewd game. When Beijing banned a quasi-religious group called the Falungong he issued a stern warning for them to obey the law and described them in the legislature as having aspects of an “evil cult,” using the same language of Beijing. Of course, this infuriated liberals, democrats and expatriates. Yet the leaders in Beijing hear these words and think, “Our man in Hong Kong is sound” and leave Hong Kong alone.

One can easily imagine what Chris Patten would have done in similar circumstances. He would have gone on radio and issued a blistering attack on China’s persecution of peaceful religions and praised how things were done differently in Hong Kong. Beijing would have seethed. Yet in the end the outcome would have been the same. The Falungong continue doing legally in Hong Kong what they would be arrested for doing in Tiananmen Square.

Before the handover, conventional wisdom held that Hong Kong, being a purely economic entity should have as its first Chief Executive somebody who was plugged into the business community. Tung seemed to fit the bill, but it proved to be a costly mistake. Hong Kong has more than enough people with the business savvy to weather the economic tempests of recent years. What it lacks are good politicians.

Hong Kong, post-handover, has proven itself to be very much a political organism. By some estimates an average of 20 public protests of various sizes and stripes take place every day. Hong Kong needs somebody at the helm with considerably more political suppleness than Tung ever displayed. That is why the denouement and early retirement is a merciful outcome – for him and for Hong Kong.

Ever the Confucian gentleman, Tung knew that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn after he was publicly berated last December in Macau by China’s President Hu Jintao. The only thing left was a face-saving way to ease him out of office and make way for somebody more attuned to Hong Kong’s current realities, someone with perhaps a few more political skills if not charisma.


It has always puzzled me how Tung could be so unpopular yet still boast what would appear to be fairly respectable public approval ratings. On the day of his resignation, The South China Morning Post reported that his “popularity rating” was 47.9 percent as if this were some kind of record low.

Yet if one equates this to a “public approval” rating, it is about where President George W. Bush was last summer. A rating of 47.9 per cent, of course, is nothing to boast about. When Bush’s numbers were in that range, things looked touch and go for him, but he went on to win re-election by a convincing margin.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has consistently polled badly. The last approval rating I saw for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was 35 percent, yet nobody is clamoring for his resignation. When the late Keizo Obuchi came in, the LDP was polling at about 20 per cent. His hapless successor Yoshiro Mori’s approval ratings fell as low as 9 per cent. Only then did he resign. Yet the LDP goes on and on, celebrating this years 50 years of almost unbroken power.

Either something is not quite right with Hong Kong’s polling system or Tung is the biggest political wimp of all time. I’m told that the most widely used poll, the one produced by Hong Kong University, uses a scale of 100 with 50 being a “pass” as if it were some kind of public school examination. A mark of 100 means the respondent agrees with everything Tung does, while a 0 means he disagrees with everything.

This is not the same as most polls in Western democracies, which basically ask whether the public figure is doing a good job. It isn’t even consistent with the university’s own figures which showed that only 16 per cent of the people would vote for Tung if they had a chance. This figure has been even lower, in the 12 per cent range, and has stayed consistently low for several years.

The Hong Kong Transition Project at Baptist University has shown only about 25 per cent of the respondents voicing satisfaction with Tung for a long time. The last one, taken in December, showed 29 percent were satisfied and 63 percent dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with his performance. He was far from having a public approval rating sufficient to retain office in an open election.

Polls are important in Hong Kong, since they are kind of a substitute for elections. In the run-up to the handover in 1997, Tung was continually dogged by low public approval ratings. Even after months of speculation that he would be the first Chief Executive, his public support languished in single digits compared with other prospective candidates (former Chief Secretary Anson Chan blew everybody away).

That’s one reason why he campaigned so strenuously (showing up at the Mongkok flophouse, for example) even after he had the nomination and selection sown up. To come into office with such low ratings would have been a humiliation. Eventually he did get up to a respectable range, pulling in 46 per cent support, well ahead of the two other active candidates on the eve of his selection in December, 1996. By then Chan had been dropped from the polling. Interesting that he should poll slightly higher the day he resigned than the day he was elected.

Todd Crowell is the author of Farewell My Colony: Last Days of British Hong Kong.



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