The race is on for HK's new top job

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After months of dithering, the shipping tycoon Tung Che-hwa has formally announced his candidacy for the post of Hong Kong Chief Executive, or head of the first post-colonial government. Mr Tung, 59, is believed to be China's favoured candidate, although there arethree other serious contenders.

Being the richest man to run for this post, he appropriately hired the ballroom of one of the colony's expensive hotels last night to announce his candidacy and gave the vaguest of hints about his platform. It seems that this lacklustre contest is finally off to a start, although the election will only involve 400 members of an election committee hand-picked by Peking.

Mr Tung's rise to political prominence has been swift, although he was already well-known in the shipping world and owns one of the largest lines, including the Orient Overseas Container Line. The shipping company, founded by his father, was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1985 when it was rescued, largely by Henry Fok, the Hong Kong businessman who is closest to the Chinese leadership. The rescue led to suggestions that the Tung family is in hock to Chinese interests. True or not, the Tungs have severed their previous close ties with China's bitter enemies in Taiwan.

Mr Tung was for a time on theGovernor's executive council. More recently, China's President, Jiang Zemin, made a point of singling out Mr Tung for a warm greeting during a televised meeting in Peking. Such gestures are rarely without significance.

His main rival appears to be the marginally more popular Chief Justice Sir Ti Liang Yang, 67, who promises to give up his knighthood and British passport if elected. He became the first Chinese Chief Justice in 1988, but his tenure was criticised for a lack of landmark judgments and for allowing the judiciary to become increasingly chaotic. However, he is a shrewd operator who is good at maintaining contacts with all sides.

Yesterday, another leading judge entered the race. He is Simon Li, 74, a former vice-president of the Court of Appeal and a member of the Li clan, one of Hong Kong's most famous families. Since leaving the bench, Mr Li has become an increasingly vociferous supporter of many of the most hard-line positions adopted by China. Interestingly his daughter, Gladys Li, the chairwoman of the Bar Association, is one of China's most articulate critics.

The fourth of the serious contenders is the businessman Peter Woo, 50, who, in line with his American training, has been running the most professional of election campaigns, albeit one which is strong on organisational skills and almost bereft of any policy commitments. Mr Woo is the son- in-law of Sir YK Pao, another of Hong Kong's shipping tycoons.

However, the most popular candidate is Anson Chan. Mrs Chan is the Chief Secretary, the number-two official in the present colonial government, but China regards her as being too "pro-British" for the top job. As most observers believe that the Chief Executive will be selected in Peking, the pretence of an election notwithstanding, this puts her out of the running.