Hong Kong leaderplans to quit

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in 2004Vincent Yu / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hong Kong’s unpopular leader plans to resign — possibly as soon as next week — because of ill health, ending a rocky eight years in office that ignited street protests for greater democracy in the former British colony, local media reported.

Most of the Chinese-ruled territory’s newspapers filled their front pages with bold headlines saying that unidentified “sources in Beijing” have confirmed that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has tendered his resignation and it was accepted.

Tung smiled at reporters Wednesday and only said, “Good morning,” as he went to work. His office has declined to address the resignation rumors.

Tung has led Hong Kong since Britain returned the territory to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula designed to give the city a wide degree of autonomy and limited democracy. He was elected by an 800-member committee loyal to Beijing.

The portly 60-year-old Tung is a millionaire scion of a Shanghai shipping family. Many believe his privileged background and career as an elite businessman has hindered his ability to connect with the common people.

Many crises
Tung’s many critics have accused him of mishandling major crises, including the 1997 Asian financial crisis that threw Hong Kong into recession and the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed hundreds and ravaged the city’s economy.

He has also resisted calls for greater democracy, including the freedom for voters to directly elected their leader and legislature. Twice in the past two years, half a million Hong Kongers have marched in the streets demanding more democracy.

Some of the reports disagreed about whether China’s leadership wanted Tung to go. The Ming Pao Daily News reported that Chinese leaders unsuccessfully asked Tung to stay on. The stated reason for resigning would be bad health, the paper said.

However, the Hong Kong Economic Journal — respected for its sober analysis — reported that Beijing lost faith in Tung’s ability to lead the government and ensure stability in Hong Kong.

Steady flow of rumors
The South China Morning Post reported that the No. 2 ranking official, Donald Tsang, would take over until a new leader was elected within six months. Tsang is a lifelong bureaucrat with a reputation as a savvy politician.

There has been a steady flow of rumors in recent years that Tung would quit before his second five-year term ended in 2007. Speculation intensified this week when it was announced that Tung would join an elite advisory panel to the Chinese parliament.

It was also reported that Tung would soon be promoted to vice chairman in the group, called the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and that the promotion could be a face-saving way to remove him from his Hong Kong office.