China's new man in Hong Kong Governor-elect: Tung Chee-hwa was a big conservative in the U.S.

December 14, 1996

WHEN THE BRITISH colony of Hong Kong reverts to China at midnight next June 30, the governor charged with making this work will be Tung Chee-hwa, who first went to the island as an 11-year-old refugee from mainland communism. He went on to own one of the world's biggest shipping companies in the world.

Mr. Tung, at 59, was named governor by a 400-member committee appointed by Beijing. He will replace Chris Patten, a British Conservative politician, who introduced a degree of participatory democracy as a colonial afterthought on the way out.

Is Mr. Tung a Communist? He is an aging Chinese gentleman thinking about his ethnic roots who is in big debt to China's Communist regime. In the 1980s, during stress and technological revolution in world shipping, only a secret huge loan from Beijing saved his Orient Overseas shipping line from going belly-up.

Is he a conservative? Tung Chee-hwa worked a decade in this country as a young man, for General Electric and then for his father's ship-line. He became a trustee of two bastions of intellectual conservatism, the Hoover Institute on War, Revolution and Peace in California and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. We look forward to their analyses of his anointment by Beijing.

Is Mr. Tung to be Beijing's enforcer in Hong Kong, or Hong Kong's special pleader in Beijing? Or is he meant to show independent Taiwan that Beijing will keep its 1984 pledge of considerable autonomy and 50 years of undisturbed capitalism in Hong Kong? That Beijing intends capitalism to flourish is undoubted, as it flourishes in southeastern China and revives in Shanghai. That Beijing intends to roll back the elective democracy that Mr. Patten introduced, it has already said. Mr. Tung apparently has no problems with that.

Others' anxieties are great. Reuters news agency announced it will move its Asian editing and production operation from Hong Kong to Singapore. That's a gloomy assessment of the future, since independent Singapore itself exercises a chilling effect. Wealthy Hong Kong residents with the means to leave and places to go will be making their minds up over the next six months. Most of Hong Kong's 6.3 million people have no such choice and will stay.

Beijing's signals on Hong Kong remain cryptic. But it is already calling the shots.

Pub Date: 12/14/96

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