Hong Kong's new ruler speaks in riddles

Stephen Vines interviews the man Peking has put in charge of the colony
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The Independent Online
Hong Kong - Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's Chief Executive designate, gives new meaning to the word opaque. Confronted with awkward questions, he smiles, pressed to answer, he smiles even more broadly and cheerfully delivers a reply to something which has not been asked.

For weeks he has been battered by criticism over plans to whittle down the colony's civil rights laws and he has ducked and weaved in response to the criticism. Yesterday he choose to explain his position to two small groups of British and American journalists, the people he has accused of spreading misinformation about Hong Kong. The aim, presumably, was to answer his critics and let the outside world know that, as he put it, the new Hong Kong will have an "equitable, compassionate and democratic society".

He insisted that the changes to the laws will simply bring Hong Kong into line with other countries. The proposed new restrictions on demonstrations, which will make it virtually impossible to call a rally at short notice, are, he says "either the same or less restrictive than elsewhere".

The freedom to demonstrate would be preserved and the new administration had no intention of stifling protest. But, he stresses: "We have to find a balance between the rights of the individual to demonstrate and the order of our society."

Mr Tung has talked a great deal about Chinese values and the pride which Hong Kong should take in putting them into practice. Asked what exactly were these Chinese values he lists: "An emphasis on family, education, respect for old people and an emphasis on quiet consultation rather than confrontation."

Could these values not also be described as being part of the non-Chinese Christian-Judaic tradition, he was asked. As ever Mr Tung smiled, and smiled again, finally saying: "The emphasis is very different". Having lived in Britain he was not prepared to suggest that no one there adhered to these values. "I'm sure in the United Kingdom people also work very hard," he conceded.

As the questioning intensified he threw his hands up in the air. "My God," he said, "this is not a press interview, it's a philosophical discussion."

Mr Tung likes to think of himself as a practical man. A former shipping magnate, he is used to commanding a large company without the hindrance of public scrutiny, yet he takes it with good grace, albeit mingled with evident perplexity.

The problem is that he is no longer a chief executive of a big company but the chief executive of a part of China, a country ruled by an authoritarian and centralised government. This means that Mr Tung must report to his masters in Peking.

His critics say he is doing no more than carrying out their wishes, but he insists that Hong Kong has been promised a high degree of autonomy by China. But, who does he actually report to? "I report to the central government," he replies. Yes, but to who in the central government? "A number of people," he says.

Is it true that there is fighting within the Chinese government for control of Hong Kong affairs and that this might make his position difficult? He shrugs. "I don't know how Whitehall works," he says and is told that it consists of a lot of power centres jostling for control. He chuckles appreciatively when it is evident that he is being asked if the same sort of thing is happening in China.

Some people have suggested Mr Tung is a member of China's ruling Communist Party. He shrugs this off. Are any members of his cabinet party members? He finally says no, adding: "If they were I would not be too concerned. I judge a person by their commitment to Hong Kong."

He is so pragmatic that he is even looking forward to better relations with a Labour government, despite having been a donor to the Conservatives' 1992 election fund. "I hope," he says, "that the Labour government will look at the whole issue in a much more macro way. Look at the long-term relations between Hong Kong and Britain and China and Britain." He believes it is important "to put behind all the argument. Let's sit down and say these things need to be done".

Is Mr Tung frustrated that his message is not understood? "Not really frustrated as such," he says, adding modestly: "I'm not skilful enough to present my message."

Cook promises same policy

The Foreign Secretary telephoned the Governor of Hong Kong yesterday to reassure him that there would be continuity of policy between the outgoing and incoming governments. Robin Cook repeated his confidence in Chris Patten - a former chairman of the Conservative Party, who was appointed by his friend, the former prime minister John Major.

Mr Cook made clear that Britain's policy on Hong Kong would continue unchanged and that the people of the colony could be sure of Britain's determination to make the transition to Chinese rule a success.