China sacks Hong Kong's leader to wreck hopes of self-rule

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The Independent Online

China's top leader, Hu Jintao, has apparently fired the unpopular Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive of Hong Kong, dashing hopes that the former British colony will achieve its long-promised autonomy.

China's top leader, Hu Jintao, has apparently fired the unpopular Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive of Hong Kong, dashing hopes that the former British colony will achieve its long-promised autonomy.

Sources in Beijing say Mr Tung reportedly handed in his resignation a month ago and is expected to make a formal announcement within days, pleading ill-health. Although he was the continual target of street demonstrations in recent years, the manner of Mr Tung's departure is likely to provoke anger over the extent of Beijing's influence over Hong Kong's affairs.

When China took Hong Kong back seven years ago, it promised "a high degree of autonomy", claiming that at last "Hong Kong people would rule Hong Kong". Instead, the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin hand-picked Mr Tung, the son of a Shanghai shipping magnate, and he was re-elected, unopposed by an 800-member committee loyal to Beijing for a second five-year term in 2002. President Jiang stuck with him despite protests that several times brought 500,000 people on to the streets demanding his resignation and direct elections for his successor.

President Jiang blamed the protests against Mr Tung's rule on British machinations. Cai Xiaohong, secretary general of the liaison office of the central government in Hong Kong, was given a suspended death sentence last year after being found guilty of selling state secrets to Britain. Despite being a "red princeling", whose father and grandfather had prominent members of the Communist Party, he was cast as a scapegoat.

After Mr Jiang himself was suddenly forced out in the autumn, his successor, President Hu, quickly made clear his intention to kick Mr Tung out by publicly reprimanding him at a ceremony in December commemorating the fifth anniversary of the handover of Macao.

Mr Tung arrived in Beijing yesterday to attend the annual meeting of the National People's Congress at which President Hu will push through a reshuffle of about 300 top jobs, including the party chiefs of a dozen major provinces and cities, and get rid of many of the Jiang loyalists.

The Hong Kong people had soon turned against the avuncular Mr Tung, blaming him for mishandling the 1997 Asian financial crisis that threw Hong Kong into recession, the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and most of all for failing to defend Hong Kong liberties from mainland interference.

He tried but failed to push through a national security law and refused to deal with legislators calling for him to introduce reforms allowing voters to directly elect their leader and legislature. Instead, the Communist Party, alarmed by the unrest, has in effect put Hong Kong under direct rule from Beijing.

Reports from Hong Kong said Beijing has already decided that Mr Tung would be replaced by his chief secretary, the well-regarded former finance secretary Donald Tsang, who will serve until Mr Tung's term runs out in mid-2007 and for the following five years. Mr Tsang, a dapper dresser who likes to sport bow ties, seems destined to serve for another five years after that. That would allow China to put off discussing any political reforms until at least the end of the decade.

"If that's the case, it's very unfortunate because everything is being controlled and managed and Hong Kong people have no say," the veteran pro-democracy legislator Emily Lau said. "There is not the high degree of autonomy Hong Kong has been promised."

Mr Tung is to join the powerless advisory panel, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, as a vice-chairman.

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