Hong Kong: Freedom's Not Negotiable
On July 1, 1997, C.H. Tung assumes arguably the toughest job in Asia: running capitalist Hong Kong under communist China. His job will involve preserving Hong Kong's freedoms while showing sensitivity to Beijing's concerns. It will mean satisfying international investors, who might flinch if the rule of law erodes in Hong Kong, while placating Beijing party leaders, who are using anti-Western, nationalist rhetoric to unite the country. Tung must do all that under the intense scrutiny of the international media that will cover the historic handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China next summer.
Tung, a former shipping magnate, has a lot going for him. He is decent, charming, and principled. Born in Shanghai, he studied at Liverpool University in Britain and worked for General Electric Co. in the U.S. He ran a global shipping company founded by his father. He is politically conservative and shares the sentiments of other Hong Kong tycoons that the heart and soul of Hong Kong is making money. Tung is more likely to be comfortable with Singapore's orderly government than Taiwan's raucous democracy. The main worry is that he will bend too far to accommodate Beijing. A consensus builder, he is inclined to come up with solutions all can live with. The trouble is, Hong Kong's freedoms aren't negotiable. Tung has already echoed Beijing in saying that Taiwan and Tibet independence advocates won't be welcome in Hong Kong. He believes Hong Kong is "too politicized" and wants the popular Democratic Party to tone down its protests against China's decision to close the locally elected legislature.
A Confucian patriarch and Chinese patriot, Tung will try to negotiate problems with Beijing quietly, out of the public eye. Beijing has leverage on him. He was recently elected chief executive by a 400-member panel appointed by Beijing. And a $120 million dollar loan from China helped bail out his company in the '80s. But Tung has leverage of his own. The last thing China wants is chaos in Hong Kong. Images on CNN of protesters demanding democracy being clubbed by police, or worse, mainland troops, would be as damaging to China as the Tiananmen Square massacre. It would hurt China's growth, delay its entry into the World Trade Organization, push Taiwan toward independence, and ruin relations with the U.S. and Europe well into the 21st century. Tung has a difficult hand to play. We hope he is tough enough to play it.