Hong Kong's leader resigns after eight years

Hong Kong's leader handed his resignation to Beijing today, fueling worries that he was actually sacked by the territory's Communist masters to tighten their grip on the former British colony and block moves toward greater democracy.

After ignoring 10 days of rumours that he was quitting, Tung Chee-hwa called a news conference and told reporters that he wanted to step down with two years left in his term. He said that he has been having unspecified health problems since late last year.

"My health was obviously not as good as it used to be" Tung said.

"If I continue as chief executive, I won't be able to handle it," he added.

Tung said that he tendered his resignation, but he didn't say whether China's leadership has accepted it.

He denied wide speculation that China pushed him out. China has "repeatedly affirmed the work that I and my colleagues and the government has done. That (forced resignation) is not the case at all," he said.

Tung's exit triggered Hong Kong's first leadership change since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula, designed to give the territory a wide degree of autonomy.

Many have speculated that the real reason for Tung's early departure was that his bosses in Beijing lost faith in his ability to run the global financial capital, which has become increasingly politicised. The last two years of Tung's rule have seen the largest-ever street protests for greater democracy and less Chinese control - displays that alarmed China.

"Beijing has been tightening political freedoms to make sure Hong Kong is not in troubled waters," said James Sung, a political analyst at City University who believes Beijing dumped Tung. "But with Tung's political skills and judgment, he is clearly not up for the job."

The 67-year-old Tung was a shipping tycoon with little political experience when he was picked to be Hong Kong's first chief executive. Hong Kong only has limited democracy, so Tung was elected by an 800-person election committee, dominated by people partial to Beijing.

He has struggled to raise his public approval ratings. Many believe that his administration bungled two major crises: the 1997 Asian financial meltdown and the 2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. His critics say he's too close to big business and insensitive to the hardships of the common people.

Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, also thought that China believed it was time for Tung to go.

"If China wanted him to stay, he would have stayed," Cheng said.

Tung's position would be temporarily filled by the number two ranking official, Donald Tsang - a popular bow tie-wearing career civil servant who was educated at Harvard and received a knighthood for his service during British colonial rule.

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