Good-bye to a Nice Man
Los Angeles --- I am saddened by reports that Tung Chee Hwa is stepping down as chief executive of Hong Kong. In decades of reporting and commenting on the news, I have seldom met a politician who was more real, warm and caring.
Of course, I donít live in Hong Kong, perhaps my favorite world city; I live in Los Angeles, light years away. But some of my best friends, whom I respect and love greatly, do live in Hong Kong, and I know they were very unhappy with Tungís leadership.
It was not hard for me to relate to that. We Angel-City dwellers are not exactly enthralled with our own leaders, either. Thereís a crisis of leadership just about everywhere these days. Is Tung any worse than our own Los Angeles mayor, whoís about as exciting as low tide?
On the contrary, Tung struck me as a singular character: So let me tell you what I liked about him -- and why I think he has been under-appreciated.
A personal example: I once had a troubled UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) student -- Hong Kong born -- who was at a career crossroads. She didnít know what to do with her life. I asked Tung if he could spend 15 minutes advising her. The answer was yes. I took this Hong Kong resident to his office and he spent a half hour counseling her. The young student left more committed to public service than ever. Maybe sheíll someday become the next Anson Chan, the legendary former head of Hong Kongís civil service.
In every chat he and I had, I always felt I was in the presence of a true patriot. It seemed to me -- the outsider -- that he loved Hong Kong the way I love UCLA -- unreservedly, and arguably uncritically.
In 1997, when I first came to Hong Kong, two months before the handover, then writing my column on Asia for The Los Angeles Times, I asked Tung if he would see me. His abhorrence of the news media is of course the stuff of legends. I said the interview could be off the record. He granted this L.A. visitor a private chat. After 90 minutes of heartfelt discourse, I stood up and insisted -- actually, rather melodramatically -- that the interview be put on the record. Shockingly, he agreed. I had a worldwide scoop. And America had a better sense of the new Hong Kong under landlord Beijing.
Many of our chats were off the record. Now that this modest man might be elevated to a new job in Beijing, I think it would not be unethical to reveal just a bit of these talks.
To me, Tung always seemed like the proverbial man caught in the very tense middle. He had the in-your-face reality of a swirling Hong Kong in front of him, and his demanding taskmasters in Beijing at his back, often snipping.
I once said to him: "So relations with Beijing are real easy and not so intense, right?" He looked at my with mirth in his eyes, shrugged his shoulders, and said: "What do you think?" As Clinton might have put it, I think I felt his pain.
What I do think is that historians will treat this semi-articulate man far more kindly than his contemporaries.
Tungís Achilles heel was probably his ineptitude with the news media. He did not like its representatives, did not trust them or even respect them. This was a major factor in his downfall. Contemporary government is to a large extent government by media. Those who understand this (e.g., Clinton) thrive; those who donít die. Beijingís leaders, who have been so critical of Tung, do not have to deal with the Hong Kong news media as Tung did. They should realize what hell he has been through.
The immediate impact on Hong Kong from his departure should not prove devastating. Donald Tsang, the successor, is very capable. A graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Sir Donald can hold his own with anyone. Tsangís predictions about the Asia Financial Crisis that he offered me in 1997 proved prescient indeed. And -- mark this as major -- he is generally comfortable with the news media. This is a big plus for Hong Kong.
In this sense, Sir Donald is very American. Tung was not. But he was a real man whose caring for Hong Kong went deep into his bones. In this sense, he was the Special Administrative Regionís founding father. And that, by George, is quite something!
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University of California at Los Angeles professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a veteran U.S. journalist who has held senior positions at TIME, CBS, The Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003. He is now founder and director of UCLA's Media Center.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 3/1/2005