COMMENTARY: HONG KONG: SO FAR, TUNG IS MAKING ALL THE RIGHT MOVES
On July 1, 1997, the day China assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, the territory's new rulers set the harbor ablaze with a flotilla of 31 illuminated barges, a laser show, and dazzling fireworks. The 800,000 spectators looking on, myself included, couldn't help but be wowed. But I also felt a sense of unease, wondering how well Hong Kong's new masters would fare at the daily, demanding job of governing. It was an easy task for Hong Kong's tycoons to foot the bill for the ceremonies and feasting surrounding the handover. But how will these magnates, who will now set the course for Hong Kong, improve on the British, who helped create a vibrant laissez-faire economy and free society in the shadow of communist China?
Of course, it's too early to tell how Hong Kong will develop. But in the past few days, I have detected encouraging signs, especially in the behavior of Hong Kong's new leader, Chief Executive C.H. Tung. By nature, the 60-year-old Tung feels more comfortable with the patriarchal style of Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, and he has the conservative values one would expect of a successful businessman who has made millions in shipping. But when he stepped into the international limelight during his first major address after the handover, Tung emphasized democracy over control, freedoms over censorship. In the presence of China's top leader, President Jiang Zemin, Tung declared: ''Democracy is the hallmark of a new era for Hong Kong.''
In the first major test of free speech in the new era, Hong Kong's new government also let China critic Martin Lee deliver a sober address from the balcony of the Legislative Council on July 1. ''My wish today is that our country, China, will become a great nation where the right of every single citizen will be protected by law,'' he told a cheering crowd of 5,000. If Tung keeps letting Lee protest this way, Lee will have one less thing to protest.
Tung's next challenge is to balance the interests of Hong Kong's people with those of his inner circle, wealthy professionals and tycoons such as property billionaire Li Ka-shing. For now, Beijing is comfortable with a Hong Kong run ''of, for, and by Big Business,'' as Burton Levin, former U.S. consul general in Hong Kong, said at a conference sponsored by the U.S.-based Freedom Forum. Top Chinese leaders don't want to see Hong Kong squander the $64 billion in foreign reserves it accumulated under British rule any more than Tung does.
Yet in coming months, populist groups, be they pro-Beijing or members of the Democratic Party, will press to spend much more of this wealth on social welfare. As these competing interests emerge, Tung will need to win public support, which means he must complete his own transition from tycoon to politician.
Whether he would admit it or not, Tung has probably already learned much about the art of politics from his predecessor, former Governor Chris Patten. Vilified by Beijing and tycoons alike, Patten nevertheless set the benchmark for democracy and political discourse in Hong Kong. For five years, he held a live seminar on how a politician operates. I recall the delighted crowds when Patten first ambled through the streets of Hong Kong in 1992 to pump the flesh and kiss babies. He never missed an opportunity to needle Beijing. But this shrewd Tory also emphasized accountable government and ran a transparent operation.
HANDS-ON. While Tung isn't as accessible as Patten, he is far more accessible than most British governors ever were. During his campaign to be selected as chief executive, he visited one community after the next to learn about their concerns, just as Patten worked his way through Hong Kong's neighborhoods to stir up support. In recent months, he has also given a steady stream of interviews and held press conferences with greater ease than when I first interviewed him last December. He still needs to sharpen his political skills to explain Beijing's behavior to the West and to Hong Kong itself. But a key aide, who had been concerned about Tung's stiffness, is now delighted with his progress.
Tung has been frustrated while waiting for the big day to arrive. Now, it has come and gone--and he can finally swing into action. ''For the first time in history,'' Tung proclaimed, ''we, the people of Hong Kong, will be master of our own destiny.'' Tung and his fellow citizens seem eager for the challenge.
By Joyce Barnathan
Updated July 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.