Natural leader he may be, but only the naive think he will really stand up for Hong Kong

Democrats need not apply is the message in the run-up to July's handover, writes Stephen Vines
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The Independent Online
Hong Kong - Britain formally hands over power in Hong Kong to China on 1 July but today the real shift in power will be confirmed by selection of the first post-colonial head of government.

More than ever before, the Governor, Chris Patten, will be marginalised after Tung Chee-hwa, 59, a shipping tycoon, is anointed as Chief Executive.

The selection has been something of a farce, because China has dressed it up as an election, although Mr Tung was chosen in Peking a year ago.

Nevertheless, the 400 members of a body called the Selection Committee will cast a majority of votes for Mr Tung today.

The two other "candidates", Sir Ti-Liang Yang, the former chief justice, and the businessman Peter Woo, will then gracefully withdraw, declaring it has been a fair race.

However, the process has been a success for Peking, anxious to persuade Hong Kong's people that they are being given their first opportunity to choose their head of government.

But, despite efforts by the colony's increasingly compliant media to portray the election campaign as a real race, there is evidence that the public have not been fooled: an opinion poll indicated that 56 per cent of respondents believed the winning candidate had been chosen in advance by China.

The farce will continue, because within days of the Chief Executive's selection, the same 400 hand-picked members of the committee making that selection will reconvene to "elect" the 60 members of a provisional legislature who will replace the Legislative Council, elected last year by the closest thing to universal suffrage Hong Kong has ever experienced.

China also intends to scrap all the other elected local- government bodies.

In so doing it will begin the new era of Chinese rule with a clean slate, cleared of all the pro-democracy politicians who have consistently gained a lot of votes when genuine elections were held.

Although China may not have convinced the public it is holding a genuine election, it has succeeded in lowering expectations of finding an independent- minded candidate to hold the top office. When the process of selecting the Chief Executive started, the public made clear its desire for the top post to be filled by either Anson Chan, the Chief Secretary and Deputy Governor, or Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party. Mr Tung scarcely registered in the public mind.

Peking may be prepared to let Mrs Chan keep her present job but she is regarded as being too closely connected with the British to win the top post. As for Mr Lee, China sees him as a subversive and beyond the pale. Nevertheless, his colleague Szeto Wah has been put forward as the Democratic Party's candidate for the post in a propaganda exercise which has gathered 100,000 signatures.

Mr Tung has risen in opinion- poll ratings because Hong Kong people like to back a winner and because he has displayed talent as a candidate. Able to look both cheerful and thoughtful while out and about on the campaign trail, he is taking a crash-course in learning how ordinary people live.

Unlike many Hong Kong tycoons, his story is not one of rags to riches but a background of considerable wealth originating in Shanghai. However, he was confronted with financial ruin in 1985, when the family's Orient Overseas shipping line incurred debts of $2.68bn. China stepped in to help Mr Tung in a complex corporate rescue plan which, say his critics, left him for ever in debt to the Chinese government.

China's leaders got to know Mr Tung and liked what they saw. He was well connected internationally, at ease in three Chinese languages and English, and has charisma and leadership qualities which have been demonstrated in the business world.

Like the leaders in Peking, he is conservative and not an instinctive democrat, in spite of a decade working in the United States and university studies in Liverpool. His experience of politics has been gained by serving on non-elected Chinese government advisory bodies and in the Governor's Executive Council, or cabinet, which he joined at Mr Patten's invitation after he sought to include a pro-Peking representative.

The big question about Mr Tung is: will he do what Peking wants, or will he, as he claims, stand up for Hong Kong's interests?

Although frequently asked, the question is naive. China simply will not tolerate Hong Kong coming under the control of an independent-minded leader. At most, it will allow a small degree of autonomy and permit the head of the Hong Kong government to devise his own presentation of policies.

It is inconceivable that real power will be ceded to a new Hong Kong government. That is why there are reports of senior Communist Party cadres being moved to the border town of Shenzhen, and talk of restructuring the party apparatus in Hong Kong so that a system of control by political commissars can be put in place. The problem Mr Tung will face is that there are a number of competing Chinese power centres keen to make their mark in Hong Kong. He may well be caught in the middle of a nasty power struggle.