Tycoon Tung takes over the helm

Hong Kong's new leader favours consultation over confrontation, says Stephen Vines
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The Independent Online
There is an easy way to upset the very loyal people around Hong Kong's new chief executive. Just mention the famous occasion back in January 1996 when China's President, Jiang Zemin, strode up to Tung Chee-hwa during a mass photo session in Peking and grasped his hand in front of the assembled television cameras.

Everyone else seems to believe that this was the moment when Mr Tung was publicly anointed as head of Hong Kong's first post-colonial government. However, his aides insist that it was nothing of the kind.

According to them he won an election, albeit one with just 400 electors, who chose him over two other contestants. Furthermore, Mr Tung went through the process of what looked very much like an election campaign.

As he did so the former shipping tycoon had his first encounters with the colony's sprawling public-housing estates, and discovered that the average worker has a monthly wage of around the amount that his friends would spend on a shark's-fin dinner.

Born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Tung Chee-hwa had little reason to mix with hoi polloi. His father may have insisted that he descend beyond the eye of fellow school students when being driven to school by the family chauffeur, but there could be no disguising the background of privilege which surrounded the Tung family when they left Shanghai to escape the Communist Revolution.

Yet now Mr Tung is the person chosen by the heirs of the revolution to run what will be the single most prosperous piece of Chinese territory. It may seem like an irony - but Mr Tung is the kind of person who makes Chinese leaders feel comfortable.

They see themselves as men of business and are attracted to real businessmen. Businessmen with a strong sense of Chinese patriotism, an inclination towards authority rather than democracy and a good grasp of power politics, zoom to the top of the most favoured list. Mr Tung is a one-man embodiment of all these virtues.

A recent local opinion poll found that the majority of respondents thought he was more likely to obey orders from Peking than be swayed by the wishes of Hong Kong people. This assessment is wide of the mark says his friend, the legislator Allen Lee, who describes Mr Tung as a "political rookie" but insists that he is own man.

Indeed, he gives every indication not so much of carrying out orders from Peking as of sharing the views of the Chinese leadership to such an extent that there is no need to issue orders. They are on the same wavelength.

Mr Tung is an urbane, well-travelled and genuinely friendly man - a type of person not generally known to inhabit the corridors of power in Peking. Yet he can also be impatient with subordinates and stubborn with those who cross him.

The rules and regulations which characterise the government machine he is about to inherit are a source of wonder and frustration to him. The wonder is derived from the machine's relative efficiency, the frustration is born of the impatience of a former chairman of a traditional Chinese company, accustomed to having his orders obeyed without question or discussion. A small example gives an insight into how Mr Tung may wish to override his civil servants. He wanted to appoint his long-time chauffeur as his official driver and was furious to be told that, according to regulations, the post would have to be advertised and open to any applicant. Mr Tung was having none of it. "Draw up the papers", he barked at the hapless official sent to try to tell him how things were done in government circles.

Mr Tung talks a lot about finding a balance between the Chinese and Western way of doing of things, but makes it clear that he has a preference for the currently fashionable notion of Chinese values. Although he mentions Chinese values in practically every speech, he is remarkably vague about what they are. He said recently that they consisted of "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.

Mr Tung comes into office with a reasonable, but diminishing degree, of popular support. His unblinking advocacy of anti-democratic measures has not gone down well in a community accustomed to a high degree of liberty, albeit accompanied by a modest degree of democratic government. Yet he is the first Chinese person to run Hong Kong for more than a century and a half. That alone is a major advantage which only he can squander.