hauled over coals

Tung Chee Hwa

Tung Chee Hwa, GBM (born 7 July 1937 in Shanghai, China) was the first elected Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. Before the handover Tung was a shipping tycoon with traditional Chinese values and strong connections to the Central Government.

He took office on 1 July 1997 after the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China, and was elected again to a second five-year term in 2002. His leadership of the "one country two system" government brought a peaceful transition from British Colonialism to Chinese rule.

His first term was hampered by the Asian financial crisis and criticism of his style of governance. He was politically naive and could not manuever in the government system which the British suddenly made more democratic in the last decade after a almost hundred years of colonial rule. As a result Tung was frequently subject to attack and ridicule by pro-democracy activists and legislators, the media and academics. Though instant democracy and self rule were never part of the handover agreements, foreign news outlets such as Time Magazine, The Economist and wired news services portrayed him as anti-democracy and Beijing's puppet. The Hong Kong local Chinese press was more balanced, however, still critical of his handling of matters regarding the economy and rights of the Hong Kong government to govern itself. Tung found his position increasingly difficult having to please both Beijing and the people of Hong Kong.

Dissatisfaction among the public towards Tung grew consistently throughout his tenure and culminated in huge protests in 2003 after the outbreak of SARS and the Article 23 controversies, when one million protesters demanded that Tung step down. As a result of this increasing criticism within Hong Kong the losing the confidence of the new Central Government under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, Tung announced his resignation due to "health reasons" on 10 March 2005, just three years into his second term as Chief Executive. He served as Chief Executive for eight years. Two days later, he became vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Mr. Donald Tsang, a life long civil servant, became the new Chief Executive.

As he is a Vice Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Politics Consultative Conference, he would be treated as a guest in HKSAR functions instead of as a former office holder of the Chief Executive.

Mr. Tung remains active in public service. In 2008, he formed the China-United States Foundation, a group which promotes better understanding between the two countries.

Early life

Tung's ancestral hometown is Dinghai (previously a county of Ningbo, currently a district of Zhoushan), Zhejiang Province. Born in Shanghai, Tung's family moved to Hong Kong when he was 10 and his father, Tung Chao Yung, went on to become a successful entrepreneur in the shipping sector. Tung graduated from the University of Liverpool, and, as the elder son, took over his father's business after the death of his father.

Election to the office of Chief Executive

In early 1997, Tung won a landslide victory over four other candidates in the election for the post of Hong Kong's first Chief Executive. The election was conducted by an electoral college of 400 voters all of whose positions are supported by the Chinese Government. It should be noted that Hong Kong has never had a leader elected by universal suffrage - Tung's British predecessors were all appointed by the British Crown, without recourse to any pretense of democracy. Tung subsequently took office as Chief Executive designate, with the assistance of a newly formed cabinet (Executive Council) and a few officers seconded from the then Hong Kong government to help in the preparation of the HKSAR government.

The government pledged to focus on three policy areas: housing, the elderly, and education. Measures on housing included a pledge to provide 85,000 housing flats each year so as to resolve the problems of soaring property prices. The Asian financial crisis that hit Hong Kong in months after Tung took office made this objective almost immediately redundant and, in fact, it was a collapse in property prices that became a far more pressing problem in the years between 1998 and 2002.

First term

Tung formally took office on 1 July 1997, with a high initial popularity among the public. Nevertheless, a few months after, the regional economy deteriorated rapidly after the Asian financial crisis. With job losses and plummeting values in the stock and property markets, people started to lose faith in Tung and the HKSAR government. Some commentators attributed the plunge in the property market to his counter-indicated homebuilding initiative. However, most economists saw how over heated the Asian economies were during the mid 1990's and it was just a matter of time before the bubble burst and over leverage came crashing down. The financial crisis was spreading througout Asia and some credit should be given to Tung for holding the Hong Kong Dollar peg and the city recovered from the crisis much better than its neighbors.

During Tung's first term the government came up with a number of reform proposals, and plenty of grand infrastructure projects were proposed, including a technology park, a science park, a Chinese medicine centre and a Disney theme park. He was hauled over hot coals, notably by then President Jiang Zemin, for a number of high-handed decisions, namely his decision to grant the Cyberport Project to Richard Li, son of tycoon Li Ka-shing, without the benefit of an open tender, the way in which the Walt Disney Company's land grant for its theme park on a 50-year lease meddled with the market, and for studying the possibility of setting up a casino in Hong Kong. But too often his administration was seen as bungling, particularly during the confusion of the first days of the new airport, the mis-handling of the avian influenza epidemic, declining standards due to education reforms (specifically teaching in the Cantonese "mother tongue" and mandatory English examination for teachers), the Right of abode issue, and his disagreement of political views with the popular then Chief Secretary, Anson Chan. Tung's popularity plummeted with the economy, to 47% satisfaction at the end of August 2002.

Second term

Tung Chee Hwa, with nominations from 714 members of the electoral college, was uncontested in the election for a second term, as according to the Chief Executive Election Ordinance, nominations from at least 100 members of the 800-strong electoral college are required for each candidate.

Accountability system

In an attempt to resolve the difficulties in governance, Tung reformed the structure of government substantially starting from his second term in 2002. In a system popularly called the Principal Officials Accountability system, all principal officials, including the Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary, Secretary for Justice and head of government bureaux would no longer be politically neutral career civil servants. Instead, they would all be political appointees chosen by the Chief Executive. The system was portrayed as the key to solve previous administrative problems, notably the cooperation of high ranking civil servants with the Chief Executive. Under the new system, all heads of bureaux became members of the Executive Council, and came directly under the Chief Executive instead of the Chief Secretary or the Financial Secretary. The heads of the Liberal Party and Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, two pro-government parties in the Legislative Council, were also appointed into the Executive Council to form a "ruling alliance," a de facto coalition. This practically shut out the pro-democratic parties and individuals.

Crisis of governance in 2003

The first major move of Tung in his second term was to push for legislation to implement Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law in September 2002. However, the initiative drew a hostile response from the pro-democratic camp, lawyers, journalists, religious leaders and human rights organisations. This stoked public concerns that the freedoms they enjoyed would deteriorate. The sentiment, together with other factors such as the SARS epidemic in early 2003, when the government was criticised for its slow response, strained hospital services and the unexpected death toll, resulted in the largest mass demonstration since the establishment of HKSAR, with an estimated 500,000 people (out of the population of 6,800,000) marching on 1 July 2003. Many demanded Tung to step down.

In response to the protests, the leader of the Liberal Party, James Tien, resigned from the Executive Council on evening 6 July, signifying the withdrawal of the party's support for the bill implementing Article 23. As a result, the government had to postpone and later withdraw the bill from the legislative agenda. On 17 July 2003, Regina Ip, the then Secretary for Security who was responsible for implementing Article 23, resigned for personal reasons. Another Principal Official, Finance Secretary Antony Leung, who earlier suffered from a scandal over his purchase of a luxury vehicle weeks prior to his introduction of a car sales tax, which was dubbed as the Lexusgate scandal, resigned on the same day.

Subsequent developments

During the debate over Hong Kong's constitutional development, Tung was criticised as not reflecting effectively the views of the general population to push for 2007/08 universal suffrage to the People's Republic of China government. Although the primary target of popular opposition was the PRC government, Tung's lack of support for the pro-democratic camp resulted in his low approval ratings.

In late 2003, in an attempt to bring back visitors to Hong Kong, Government agency InvestHK was mandated to sponsor the Harbour Fest music festival in October, organised by the American Chamber of Commerce. The result was a series of poorly attended concerts, HK$100m bill for the taxpayers, with the Government, InvestHK and the American Chamber of Commerce blamimg each other for the monumental flop. Tung's cabinet suffered another blow in July 2004 when another Principal Official, the Secretary for Health, Welfare & Food, Dr. Yeoh Eng Kiong, resigned on 7 July to take political responsibility for the government's handling of the SARS outbreak in 2003, after the release of the investigation report of LegCo over the issue.

In late-2004, the Tung administration was rocked by another embarrassment as the large planned sale of government-owned real estate, The Link REIT, was cancelled at the last moment by a lawsuit by a tenant from an affected estate.

With the subsequent improvement in the economy over 2004, unemployment fell and the long period of deflation ended. This resulted in a decrease in public discontent as the government's popularity improved, and popular support for the democratic movement dwindled with a protest in January attracting a mere few thousand protesters compared to the 1 July protests of 2003 and 2004. However, the popularity of Tung himself remained low compared to his deputies including Donald Tsang and Henry Tang.


Tung's reputation suffered further damage when Hu Jintao gave him a humiliating public dressing-down for poor governance in December 2004. Official sources specifically cited the poor handling of the Link REIT listing, the West Kowloon cultural project, the Hung Hom flats episode. Tung himself denied it was a dressing-down, and insisted that he retained the President's support, although he and the rest of the government were asked to examine their past inadequacies. Hu's words, however, were thinly veiled criticism. Nevertheless, in his January 2005 Policy Address, Tung gave a rather critical verdict on his own performance.

The speculation which was running rife in the weeks in the run-up to his actual resignation, and its intensity, continued to perpetuate the impression of Tung's "weakness" and "confusion". Prior to Tung's resignation, in mid-February Stanley Ho, a tycoon with close ties with Beijing, had already commented on the possible candidates for the next Chief Executive, and personally endorsing Donald Tsang. This started rumours that Tung would be nominated to the election of vice chairman of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) of the PRC. On the night of 27 February 2005, it was revealed he and nine other persons would be appointed as new members to the CPPCC. All the local newspapers, except for the three controlled by the PRC government, namely Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po and Hong Kong Commercial Daily, went to the presses preemptively on the morning of 2 March with the headline "Tung Resigns". Tung declined to comment when questioned by journalists waiting at the government headquarters.

On 10 March 2005, Tung assembled a press conference at the Central Government Offices and announced that he had tendered his resignation due to "health problems". After flying to Beijing on 11 March, Tung was elected Vice Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on 12 March 2005, the last day of CPPCC annual meeting.

His resignation sparked a constitutional debate of whether his successor should fill his remaining term of two years, or start a new term of five years. Tung was mostly chosen by the PRC due to his business background as well as owing Beijing for saving him from bankruptcy with a US $100 million loan. In addition Tung wanted to see Hong Kong modelled after Singapore. Lee Kwan Yew was notable for taking hard pro-PRC stance such as the push for greater use of mandarin and simplified Chinese characters.


Tung was awarded a Grand Bauhinia Medal in 2006. Some Hong Kong people thought that awarding Tung the Grand Bauhinia Medal was an insult to the citizens and to the medal. He was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree in Social Sciences (D.S.Sc) by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on 10 November 2006.

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