Tung learns the Chairman Mao strut

Hong Kong's boss is singing Peking's tune
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The Independent Online
If body language tells a story, the body language of Tung Chee- hwa, who will head Hong Kong's first post-colonial government, tells a great deal.

When he was appointed at the end of last year Mr Tung was very much an avuncular uncle-figure, often dressed modestly in a cardigan and often seen listening with head bowed in humble and attentive mode.

Is this the same Mr Tung who is still smiling but, especially when attending meetings in China, is transformed into a finger-wagging and strutting official? "He even walks just like a Chinese official," said a Chinese journalist. "They all have their hands clasped behind their backs because Chairman Mao used to walk that way."

Body language aside, the millionaire former shipping magnate is beginning to sound far more like a Chinese government official than a local politician. In his earliest speeches as chief executive-designate, Mr Tung stressed that his priorities were "housing, education, welfare for the elderly, industrial development and economic vibrancy". However, he has spent the greater part of the last few months working on changes to public order and human rights laws, reflecting China's overriding concern about political control in Hong Kong.

As criticism has mounted of his plans to reintroduce old colonial public order laws, Mr Tung has become more extreme in justifying his actions. Speaking last week he said that the territory was "extremely vulnerable to external forces" and therefore needed to ensure "sufficient safeguards in our system to maintain law and order at all times".

But it has proved impossible to get Mr Tung's aides to provide instances of this supposed vulnerability or cite examples where "external forces" (a phrase frequently used by Chinese officials) have intervened to create instability in Hong Kong.

Mr Tung, who studied at Liverpool University and spent a decade working in the United States, appears to have been somewhat shaken by the experience. In the same speech he said: "When I was living in the West I experienced first-hand the deterioration of social order as Western society became more permissive ... I do not want to see a Hong Kong which is permissive to the point where we start to surrender social order."

These dire warnings have left local people scratching their heads, trying to identify the problem which is clearly uppermost in Mr Tung's mind. They are not persuaded that their new leader's priorities are those of the Hong Kong people. An opinion poll published a couple of weeks ago recorded 45 per cent of those questioned saying they had "less trust" in Mr Tung's determination to safeguard Hong Kong's interests. This compares with 30 per cent giving this answer when the question was asked in February.

Mr Tung has also caused dismay by insisting that political parties should not be allowed to receive foreign donations, nor have contacts overseas. When he admitted that he gave pounds 50,000 to the Conservative 1992 general election campaign fund, he provoked further confusion by saying this was why he did not want to see the same sort of thing happening in Hong Kong.

Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party, says that on every single issue of importance to maintaining Hong Kong's autonomy, Mr Tung has toed the Chinese line rather than reflect local views.

Alan Castro, a local columnist with a reputation for bluntly articulating a pro-Peking line, sees Mr Tung's position differently.

In his view the problem is that the Western media refuse to recognise that Mr Tung enjoys a considerable degree of public support precisely because he expresses views which reflect the prevailing Chinese culture. "The rapport Mr Tung enjoys among his people has a lot to do with the natural integrity he projects," according to Mr Castro. "He comes across enormously well in Chinese."

Indeed one of Mr Tung's more frequently stated themes is that of pride in Chinese values. "We need," he said, "to renew our commitment to the traditional Chinese virtues of modesty, hard work, persistence, magnanimity to foes, loyalty to friends, respect for seniors, emphasis on obligations rather than individual rights, and the willingness to sacrifice one's interest for the common good."

It would be wrong to underestimate the impact of remarks such as these. As Hong Kong finally ends the era of colonial rule, there is a strong feeling that the majority Chinese population needs to reaffirm its Chinese identity. There is considerable pride in finally being led by someone who speaks the same language and looks the same as the rest of the population.

At the same time Hong Kong people have developed a sophisticated appreciation of political affairs. Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, which tracks views about the hand-over of power, says that, contrary to prevailing myths, he has yet to come across another society in which there is such a high degree of political participation.

This means that although Hong Kong people are proud to have a Chinese leader, they are not prepared to be uncritical. They are watching carefully to see whether he will be a leader of Hong Kong or a conduit for Peking.

It is not even clear whether Mr Tung was his own man when it came to selecting members of his cabinet. Some Chinese sources say that at least one of his choices was vetoed because of supposed British connections.

It is far too early to deliver a verdict on Mr Tung's performance but it is clear that his honeymoon has given way to critical scrutiny of every move.

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