Shipping tycoon to replace Patten at handover

 

HONG KONG passed a major milestone in its transition to Chinese rule yesterday when a billionaire shipping tycoon, Mr Tung Chee hwa, swept to a landslide victory in the race to become governor elect.

Hong Kong's new political elite, members of a 400 strong electoral college assembled by Beijing, gathered in a hall under a spotlit red and gold seal of the Communist Party of China to hand Mr Tung (59) the post of chief executive-designate.

The outcome was widely regarded in Hong Kong as a foregone conclusion. Mr Tung, whose family maritime empire was rescued by Beijing a decade ago, had been regarded as China's man since he was singled out for a pointed handshake by President Jiang Zemin in January.

Newspapers which had put the finishing touches to their front pages a day earlier were ready to publish the moment Mr Tung was declared leader in waiting. He polled 80 per cent of the votes cast by the panel, many of whom are expected to seek influential positions in the post 1997 administration, eclipsing his two rivals, a former chief justice, Mr Yang Ti Liang, and a businessman, Mr Peter Woo.

Mr Tung, whose wealthy family fled the 1949 communist revolution, will take the helm at midnight on June 30th, 1997, stepping into Governor Chris Patten's shoes when the British wind up more than 150 years of colonial rule.

The Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr Qian Qichen, declared the vote the birth of true democracy in Hong Kong, with all 28 governors having been appointed by Britain in the past.

Outside, noisy pro democracy activists denounced the process as a travesty and set fire to a replica of a traditional Chinese tomb, symbolising what they said was the death of democracy.

Police arrested 29 protesters for obstruction, including one of Hong Kong's best known independent politicians, Ms Emily Lau.

Mr Tung, accompanied by bodyguards for the first time, declared his victory a triumph not just for himself but for the entire Chinese nation.

"For the past 100 years, Hong Kong has been a colony. Now we are in charge of ourselves. I believe most Hong Kong people have confidence in the future," he said.

Hong Kong's democrats, who have spearheaded the campaign for greater democracy, view Mr Tung's conservatism with trepidation and fear his business dealings mean he will be unable to stand up to Beijing.

However, those who know him both at home and abroad hail Mr Tung's good character, his modesty, wisdom and caution and the business community took comfort in the prospect of seeing one of their own at the helm after the handover.

China was the first to congratulate Hong Kong's future chief executive. "We would like to congratulate Mr Tung," Mr Qian, making his second trip to Hong Kong for the occasion, told the electoral panel.

The British Prime Minister, Mr John Major, and the Foreign Secretary, Mr Malcolm Rifkind, both sent messages of congratulation to Mr Tung and said he was most welcome to visit Britain whenever he wanted.

Taipei said it hoped to forge cordial ties with Mr Tung. Mr Patten congratulated his successor and pledged assistance as Mr Tung begins to assemble his administration.