Hong Kong’s leader Tung Chee-hwa is expected to resign tomorrow according to news reports, as high-ranking Chinese officials heaped praise on him in an apparent send-off after seven rocky years in office.
Most of Hong Kong’s major newspapers today quoted unidentified sources as saying Tung planned to announce his resignation before flying to Beijing tomorrow to take over a new post on an elite advisory group to the Chinese legislature.
Tung avoided reporters waiting outside government headquarters as he went to work today. He has so far refused to directly address the rumours he’s quitting two years early. His silence has helped fuel the media frenzy over his future that began last week.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing lavished praise on Tung, who has been Hong Kong’s leader – or chief executive – since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
“I think his contributions have been great. Hong Kong people have seen them for themselves,” Li told reporters in footage repeatedly broadcast on Hong Kong television.
“You have covered him on many occasions,” he said. “You can probably recall all the good things he has done.”
Zhang Chunxian, China’s minister of communications, also gave Tung a big pat on the back.
“He’s humble. He works very diligently. He has goodwill toward people when he’s thinking about problems. He’s done everything he can for Hong Kong’s development,” Zhang told reporters.
Tung, 67, was a shipping magnate with little political experience when he took the job as Hong Kong’s chief executive. In recent years, his public approval ratings have been dismal, largely because many think he’s indecisive and too cosy with big business.
Hong Kong has never enjoyed full democracy. The British opposed it, and the Chinese have continued to block reforms that would give voters the power to directly elect the chief executive and the entire legislature.
Tung was elected by an 800-member committee dominated by people partial to Beijing. If he resigns, the No. 2 ranking official, Donald Tsang, would take over until a new election could be held within six months.
Also today, pro-democracy MPs called for an urgent debate on whether the legislature should demand an explanation of Tung’s future.
Opposition MP and unionist Lee Cheuk-yan lashed out at the government’s silence over the rumours.
“The government is once again turning Hong Kong into an international joke,” Lee said. “The rumour has dragged on for more than a week and the administration neither confirmed nor rejected it. The public is losing their confidence in the government.”
But Rita Fan, the president of the Legislative Council, denied the MPs’ request, saying the legislature should not be discussing speculative reports.
Fan’s decision drew fire from opposition MPs, who accused her of avoiding discussion of Tung to prevent criticism against the government.
“It is unreasonable,” Lee said. “If the government doesn’t clarify now, the situation is losing control. This is not a healthy development.”
Another MP, Lee Wing-tat, said: “We’re very disappointed (with Fan’s decision). Indications about Mr. Tung’s resignation have become increasingly clear in the past 10 days. It is not a matter of fact. It is only a matter of time.”
The MP said they will demand Tung attend an emergency meeting at the legislature to explain the situation if the leader indeed announces his resignation tomorrow.
Tung’s resignation rumours began last week when local media reported he would be named a vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – an elite advisory panel to the Chinese legislature. Yesterday evening, the body nominated Tung to be a vice-chairman – a position usually given to retired leaders. The group was expected to approve the appointment on Saturday.