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Hong Kong Puts Businessman at the Helm

Asia: Beijing appointees select shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa to be the territory's first post-colonial ruler.

December 11, 1996|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — Despite his claims of being just a businessman and not a politician, shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa won formal approval as Hong Kong's first post-colonial ruler today.

As the 400 appointees of the Selection Committee--designated by Beijing to choose the chief executive--arrived at Hong Kong's glitzy convention center, demonstrators massed near the entrance protesting that the public had no vote.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 12, 1996 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Candidate misidentified--In some editions of The Times on Wednesday, the family name was incorrectly given for Ti Liang Yang, a former chief justice and unsuccessful candidate for the job of Hong Kong's first post-colonial ruler. It is Yang.

Undaunted by the protesters, the committee took about an hour and a half to hand Tung 320 votes, giving his closest rival, former Chief Justice Ti Liang Yang, 42. Banker Peter Woo received 36, and two ballots were declared void.

Not bad for the bright-eyed businessman who believed until recently that he was unqualified to steer Hong Kong during its pivotal transition.

Protesting that he did not understand the aspirations of Hong Kong's people, Tung, 59, waited until the last minute to declare himself a candidate to lead the territory after China reclaims it from the British on July 1.

But in the nearly two months since he joined the small circle of nominees for the top job, the once-discreet, press-shy tycoon has emerged as a charismatic candidate who strangely appeals to international leaders, Hong Kong's people--and the powers in Beijing.

"There's a lot of work to be done in tackling the transition," Tung said at a podium in front of China's national seal after the vote. "I'll be working hard from now on."

No doubt it is a difficult position. While the world watches, the first leader of post-1997 Hong Kong must balance the hopes of Hong Kong's people, who will be testing new limits after the takeover, and the demands of Beijing, which values control above all else. He must reassure investors that Hong Kong will remain an international economic and legal refuge, while satisfying China that dissidents and those who disagree with Beijing's policies on Taiwan and Tibet have no place here.

The intrigue of Tung is his apparent promise to pull it off.

From the January day he received a king-making handshake from Chinese President Jiang Zemin, to laudatory comments from Hong Kong's British governor, Chris Patten, to his meeting last week with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord--who did not see the other two candidates--Tung repeatedly gleans endorsements from people who seem to agree on little else.

"He's eager, affable, listens well and is smart. He knows everything about business," said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who has gotten to know Tung on trips through Hong Kong and during talks on China policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

What is critical, she advised him on a recent trip here, is that he reach out to the average people and prove to them that he--not Beijing--will be running Hong Kong after the hand-over.

If nothing else, Tung is a fast learner. He has gone from a brusque, reluctant candidate to a man of the people. On televised visits to housing projects, he appropriates Patten's best lines and greets throngs of well-wishers with the two-handed grasp that is President Clinton's trademark.

The effort paid off: Tung switched top places in popularity polls with the likable but distant former Chief Justice Ti, 67, who announced his candidacy from a yacht. Banker Woo, 50--who some say appears too slick for man-in-the-street appeal but was the first to open the campaign up to the public by publishing his platform--is at the bottom of the ratings.

But even as Tung walks the back streets of Hong Kong, his platform has been right in step with Beijing's party line.

He has accused Hong Kong's largest political group--the Democrats--of being anti-China. He has said the press should remain free but shouldn't "go stirring up all that muck." He believes that the Communist Party should be legalized in Hong Kong and that the territory "should be prepared to make sacrifices for China."

"What he says would cause an uproar if it were coming from some stiff party member," one observer said. "But somehow coming from his mouth, it seems nearly palatable."

But, critics say, it is Beijing and its backers he must please. Whether Tung was anointed as China's choice when Jiang singled him out for a handshake, many on the Selection Committee--who themselves were chosen by China--believed it. And that made it so.

Members of the Selection Committee who also serve on the legislative council raced down the road to that group's afternoon session, where two motions will be considered with Tung in mind: One is a no-confidence vote, sponsored by vocal Democrat Emily Lau, who was dragged away from the protest this morning and arrested; the other is a vote of congratulations.

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