Is Tung Chee-Hwa on the way out? Hong Kong's rumor mill began turning after an announcement in early March that the city's Beijing-appointed boss had been named to the largely ceremonial Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. As Tung headed to a meeting of that advisory body, reports were surfacing in local newspapers that he may have resigned his Hong Kong post. The 67-year-old former businessman's reaction? "I will give an account of the matter at an appropriate time," he said stonily.
If Tung leaves, as seems likely, his ouster will say as much about Chinese President Hu Jintao as about his own beleaguered tenure as Hong Kong's boss. Tung's departure would be the latest sign that Hu, who took office two years ago, is implementing a new strategy to deal with China's troublesome relations with the rest of the Greater China triangle: Hong Kong and Taiwan. Like his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, Hu takes a hard line on core issues, ruling out democratic reforms in Hong Kong and threatening Taiwanese who advocate formal independence. "This is an occasion to pass on the message that the new leadership in Beijing is firmly in power," says Christine Loh, CEO of Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong think tank. But Hu has been trying to soften the blows with policies to appeal to the masses.
Getting rid of Tung could win Beijing points among Hong Kong people tired of his indecisive leadership. Even critics of the government concede that it will improve without Tung. Donald Tsang, Tung's No. 2 and most likely replacement, "has more credibility," says Albert Cheng, a pro-democracy member of the legislature. "There will be a more accountable government with stronger leadership."
But Tung's departure also helps Hu deal with the longer-term issue of direct elections in Hong Kong. Tung's term was supposed to last until 2007, and the debate over how to choose his successor has been fierce. By forcing Tung out now, Hu can ensure that a pro-Beijing committee of just 800 appointees chooses his replacement, who will serve a new five-year term until 2010. That will give Hu three years to push off calls for democracy and to maintain control over Hong Kong's leaders.
If Hu can keep protesters off Hong Kong's streets, he will also strengthen his hand in dealing with Taiwan. Anti-Beijing demonstrations in Hong Kong could play into the hands of Taiwan's independence advocates, who badly need a boost. Since President Chen Shui-bian's pro-independence alliance failed to win control of Taiwan's legislature in December, he has been making conciliatory gestures toward China. For his part, Hu is wielding both a stick and a carrot. The National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp legislature, is set to pass a new anti-secession law that some fear China could use to justify military action against Taiwan. But Hu has also opened China's markets to Taiwanese agricultural products. That move could earn Beijing points among Taiwan's farmers and weaken their support for independence.
Hu's strategy seems to be working, but it won't be smooth sailing. Even if Beijing pleases Hong Kongers by ousting Tung, there's no sign the pro-democracy camp will give up its universal suffrage demand. And cross-strait relations remain tense. It will take a lot more for Hu to win hearts and minds in China's restless periphery.
By Bruce Einhorn and Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong
EDITED BY Edited by Rose Brady