Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 6

The saga of Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s fall from grace has highlighted Beijing’s tightening grip over the Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as the dicey future of the “one country, two systems” model. While Tung indicated last Thursday that he had submitted his resignation to Beijing earlier that day because of failing health, news about his impending departure had already been splashed across the Hong Kong papers on March 2.

In fact, Chinese sources in Beijing said the leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had made the decision about sacking the unpopular SAR chief in late January. Steps were taken to induct the 67-year-old former shipping magnate into the mainland’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) as one of its 20-odd vice-chairmen. And not long after Tung was endorsed as a CPPCC vice-chairman last Saturday, Beijing announced it had accepted his resignation. Given that a CPPCC vice-chairmanship is deemed an honorary, post-retirement job for ageing senior cadres, Tung’s dismissal was a well-planned maneuver to demonstrate the Hu-Wen team’s more assertive – and in many ways, more Machiavellian – leadership style.

It is no secret that the Hu-Wen administration was unhappy with Tung’s performance since he assumed the post of SAR chief in July 1997. On July 1, 2003, more than half a million Hong Kong residents took to the streets to demand Tung’s dismissal due to reasons including rising unemployment, Tung’s poor handling of the SARS epidemic, and his ham-fisted efforts to introduce the draconian “Article 23” national security legislation. (The bill against sedition, secession and the leakage of state secrets was shelved in early July to pacify an angry public.) It is true that the economy started to improve last year thanks partly to a plethora of favorable policies that Beijing had adopted to re-energize the SAR economy. However, Hu last December made his displeasure at the bumbling Tung known when he publicly called upon the Hong Kong leader to be better at “finding out deficiencies” in his administration.

Despite this, Tung might have been able to hang on until the end of his term in June 2007 if his patron, ex-president Jiang Zemin had not retired from the post of Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman last September. Almost immediately after becoming commander-in-chief, Hu masterminded a large-scale reshuffling of provincial party secretaries and governors to speed up rejuvenation – and to promote several fast-rising members of his own Communist Youth League faction.

“Hu is killing two birds with one stone with his sacking of Tung, a Shanghai native who sometimes talked to Jiang in Shanghaiese,” said a Chinese source close to Beijing’s Hong Kong policy-making establishment. “Firstly, he has sent out the message that Beijing cannot tolerate two more years of the maladministration of the prized SAR under lame-duck Tung. Secondly, the removal of the Jiang appointee will accentuate the Hu-Wen leadership’s determination to flush out more affiliates of the much-maligned Jiang Zemin or Shanghai Faction.”

Given Tung’s poor track record, few Hong Kong residents were sorry to see him go. Moreover, his replacement, Acting Chief Executive Donald Tsang, is a relatively popular career civil servant who was knighted by the British before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to Beijing. And Beijing’s spin-masters have been playing up the fact that President Hu’s “resolute” decision regarding leadership changes in Hong Kong would better enable the SAR to turn a new leaf.

However, there is little doubt that the entire “dump Tung” episode signals a further erosion of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy – and of the vitality of the one country, two systems model. As pro-democracy legislator and labor activist Lee Cheuk-yan pointed out: “Hong Kong people played no role in the selection of Tung as chief executive, and we have been totally left in the dark concerning his dismissal as well as the selection of his successor.” Lee Wing-tat, the Chairman of the Democratic Party, noted that “a great blow has been dealt the ‘one country, two systems’ principle if everything is being orchestrated in Beijing” concerning leadership changes in the SAR. Pro-democracy legislators have called on Tung to appear before the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, to give a “full explanation” of the circumstances of his departure.

According to a Hong Kong-based Western diplomat, Tung’s dismissal was disturbing to the extent that factional intrigue in Beijing had become a principal determinant of who should be running the SAR. It is understood that the Hu-Wen team had largely circumvented the “normal channels” – the Coordinating Leadership Group on Hong Kong Affairs (CLGHKA) and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office – when implementing their decision about Tung. The CLGHKA, supposedly the Communist Party’s foremost policy-setting organ on Hong Kong, is led by Jiang’s alter ego, Vice-President Zeng Qinghong. “The Hong Kong policy apparatus is still largely run by Shanghai Faction affiliates,” the diplomat said. “And many cadres in Beijing and Hong Kong involved with SAR policy didn’t know about Tung’s fate until the rumors had gathered in Hong Kong.”

Factional dynamics has also figured prominently in the Hu-Wen team’s selection of Tsang as Tung’s successor. While immediately after the 1997 handover, Beijing had considered Tsang with suspicion because of his London links, the British-trained administrator has in the past few years bent over backwards to please the Communist Party leadership. For example, Tsang played a sizeable role in at least indirectly shooting down the possibility of universal-suffrage polls to pick the chief executive in 2007. Equally significantly, Tsang has little ties with Shanghai Faction stalwarts such as Vice-President Zeng. At the same time, the political fortune of Financial Secretary Henry Tang, another aspirant for the chief executive’s post, has plummeted. Tang’s father, a Shanghai industrialist who moved to Hong Kong in the late 1940s, had close relations with ex-president Jiang. And it is believed that President Hu does not want another Shanghai Faction holdover to run Hong Kong.

Another controversy related to Tung’s resignation – whether his successor will have a two- or five-year term – also illustrates Beijing’s hands-on approach to Hong Kong affairs. In accordance with a clause in the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution) dealing with the resignation of the chief executive, Tsang will be Acting Chief Executive until an 800-member, Beijing-appointed electoral college chooses the next Hong Kong supremo on July 10. Basic Law has clearly stipulated that whoever is favored by the electoral college will have a five-year term.

However, Chinese cadres and legal scholars had pointed out repeatedly – well before Tung’s formal submission of his resignation last Thursday – that according to Chinese political culture and practice, whoever replaces Tung will only serve out the rest of his term, meaning two years. These scholars noted that the five-year tenure only applied to a chief executive beginning an entirely new term of office. They added that Tung’s replacement would be regarded in the Chinese tradition as akin to a stand-in for an incapacitated chief executive. This stance was affirmed by the State Councillor in charge of Hong Kong, Tang Jiaxuan, earlier last week.

Irrespective of the outcome of this controversy, Beijing’s high-profile intervention in Hong Kong politics presages even wider departures from the norms of “one country, two systems,” which was put forward by late leader Deng Xiaoping to reassure Hong Kong during Beijing’s negotiations with the British in the 1980s. This is despite the fact that at least superficially, the Communist party leadership has reason to be satisfied with recent developments in the SAR. Anti-Tung and anti-Beijing sentiments have gone down in the wake of the 8 percent growth in the economy last year. Moreover, after Beijing emphatically ruled out faster democratization of the SAR last year, more Hong Kong residents have become resigned to the inevitable – and pro-democracy politicians have been able to attract at most several thousand people to join rallies that clamor for general elections.

It is evident, however, that the Hu-Wen leadership is still obsessed with the possibility that Hong Kong may become a “base of subversion” that “hostile anti-Chinese elements abroad” could use to destabilize the mainland. Sources close to the Hu camp said while ex-president Jiang almost never called a Hong Kong-related Politburo meeting, the Hu-led Politburo Standing Committee had discussed Hong Kong issues at least a few times since the July 1, 2003 anti-Tung protests. Moreover, the sources said, a number of Hu advisers wanted Tung’s successor, Tsang, to further prove his loyalty to Beijing by rekindling efforts to re-enact the hated Article 23 national security law. And given the fact that as in the case of Tung, Tsang is beholden to Beijing for his meteoric rise to the top, the Harvard-trained administrator may feel obliged to live up to the expectations of the SAR’s new Beijing bosses.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation as well as a Hong Kong-based journalist and analyst.