Hong Kong: Another Body Blow To The Rule Of Law?

The resignation of 61-year-old Chief Secretary Anson Chan, Hong Kong's top civil servant, dealt another blow to the stumbling administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa. Chan is well-regarded for her forceful, public defense of Hong Kong's judicial independence and press freedom. Her early exit, announced on Jan. 12, is a vivid reminder of just how rocky the transition to Chinese rule remains for the city of 7 million people. Chan said she was resigning for personal reasons. That explanation was rejected by politicians and analysts of all stripes in Hong Kong, many of whom worry that the departure of a woman known as the conscience of the city reflects friction with the more pro-Beijing Tung.

Although Chan is heading for the door, Tung's problems aren't over--and neither will friction between Hong Kong and Beijing go away. Tung must convince Hong Kongers and the international community that he'll fight for what separates Hong Kong from the mainland, especially the rule of law and freedom of the press. Tung, who has talked about political reform in only the vaguest of terms, will have to contend with Hong Kongers who are pushing for more autonomy and democracy, and who fear Tung will now pack his administration with pro-Beijing types or local pals. Chan's exit "is the beginning of the changing of the guard," says former legislator Christine Loh, who is now chief executive of a nonprofit reform group, Civic Exchange.

EBBING SUPPORT. Chan's abrupt resignation also focused attention on the degree to which Tung has lost the support of both the public and the city's nearly 200,000 civil servants since he took office on July 1, 1997. His approval ratings consistently have been in the 30% range, says Michael De Golyer, director of the respected Hong Kong Transition Proj-ect. That's only about half that enjoyed by Chan and her likely successor, Finance Secretary Donald Tsang. Hong Kong-born Tsang, 56, has won high marks from the international financial community, but he has yet to show he has anything like Chan's spine when it comes to defending the rule of law and press freedom.

Coincidentally, Chan's resignation occurred just as the controversial Falun Gong sect held an unprecedented international meeting in Hong Kong. The group is prohibited in mainland China, where it has been the subject of a crackdown that has seen many of its members arrested, tortured, and even, according to the group, killed by authorities while in detention. Pro-Beijing forces attacked the meeting, with the Ta Kung Pao newspaper accusing the Falun Gong of "using Hong Kong for anti-China activities." The group's ability to hold future events in Hong Kong will be a key test of Tung's commitment to preserving the city's independence.

Tung's supporters hope that Chan's departure will mean an end to the bickering within the Administration. They contend that Chan, who was appointed by British Governor Chris Patten in 1993 as the first ethnic Chinese Chief Secretary, was divisive. "I think the majority of the government service people are quite happy about [the resignation] because Anson always put up a fight with C.H. [Tung]," says a businessman with close ties to Tung. Pro-Beijing forces had seen Chan as too pro-British--the kind of colonial hangover Hong Kong needed to banish.

Chan may not be gone for good. De Golyer thinks that she would stand a good chance of winning in a secret ballot among the 800-strong Election Committee that will choose the new Chief Executive when Tung's term is up next year. She has said she will not run. Still, with many concerned that Tung is out of touch with modern Hong Kong, Chan could yet change her mind and take another turn on the political stage.

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