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Was Hong Kong’s Boss a Democrat in Disguise?

Hong Kongs Tung Chee-hwa may have seemed clueless in office. But the hapless leader did more for the territorys democratic hopes than anyone else.

Hong Kongs former chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, never inspired much confidence. Tung, a former shipping tycoon handpicked by Beijing to be the territorys first postcolonial leader, appeared hapless from the start. Only months into the job, his administration dithered in its response to the 199798 Asian financial crisis. When the SARS panic struck, Tung was no quicker to act, allowing crucial weeks to pass before owning up to the severity of the outbreak. The 67-year-old chief executive proved even more politically tone deaf when he attempted to push through Article 23, an anti-subversion bill that would have seriously curtailed civil liberties. His obstinance ultimately led half a million Hong Kongers to take to the streets in protest, and the measure was withdrawn.

The people of Hong Kong lost faith in Tung years ago. On Thursday, when the embattled official announced his resignationclaiming he was stepping down for health reasonsit appeared Beijing had finally lost faith in him, too. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kongs mini-constitution, Tungs deputy, Chief Secretary Donald Tsang, will fill the top post. An 800-member pro-Beijing committee then has six months to choose Hong Kongs next leader, who, according to a plain reading of the law, will serve a full five-year term.

Hong Kongs democrats certainly have no love loss for Tung. But the timing of his ouster has many crying foul. Why does the timing matter? Tungs political term would have come to an end in 2007. The citys political activists suspect that by installing a new chief executive now, Beijing will be able to forestall any demands for direct elections for the top job until 2010long after the international spotlight on Beijings 2008 Olympics has dimmed. In forcing Tungs early exit, he mayin Beijings viewfinally have been good for something.

Not so fast. In his incompetence, Tung may actually have been the democrats best friend. Consider how much the territory has changed on his watch. Long before Tung came onto the scene, we were always told Hong Kong was about economics, not politics. The people who built this Asian boomtown were interested in making money, not a fuss. Even when 500,000 Hong Kongers poured into the street in July 2003 to protest Tungs anti-subversion legislation, longtime talking heads strained to argue that the people were really upset about their sixth year of recession. It couldnt be the politics.

But, after eight years of living under Tung, its hard to argue that the people of Hong Kong dont care about more than their economic future. Those years taught the citys residents that matters such as public health, official budgets, and protection of civil liberties are political issues that public involvement can shape. Today, as Beijings leaders know, the city has a loud and active community of democratic activists and political parties. Indeed, the anti-Tung backlash has been so powerful in Hong Kong, even the pro-Beijing political parties support the idea of holding direct elections in the territory. The democratic tide was so strong during the legislative elections last year that a number of pro-business candidateswho are guaranteed seats in so-called functional constituencies representing manufacturing and financial interestsopted to take their chances in competitive district races. Why? Because they see the territory moving in a democratic direction and they dont want to appear to be on the wrong side of history. The record high voter turnout last September suggests they are right.

To be sure, Hong Kong is still a city of pinstripes and power ties. Its democratic fervor is a far cry from the impassioned politics of a Taiwan or South Korea. But the city that was supposed to be about making your fortuneand nothing elseis a political animal, too. Saying otherwise will no longer do. And, for that, we have Tung Chee-hwa to thank.

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