Appearing relaxed and confident at his first post-handover news conference, Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, shrugged off a protest rally, pledged to hold elections during the second quarter of 1998 and reasserted Hong Kong’s right to conduct its internal affairs independently from China.
The 60-year-old shipping magnate, widely regarded as an unknown and untested political quantity, deftly handled questions in English, Mandarin and Cantonese about trade, democracy and relations between Hong Kong and China at the convention center here Wednesday, one day after British rule ended and the Chinese flag was hoisted over government buildings.
“In terms of the short term, there will be conflicts,” Tung said regarding Hong Kong’s relations with Beijing. “Obviously they will need to be talked through.” But Tung said the long-term interests of China and Hong Kong were “the same,” thus playing down the prospects of protracted disagreements with China’s Communist leadership.
Tung said Hong Kong’s 6.3 million people would have to learn about China, but he added that Hong Kong should not feel obliged to either “accommodate or humor” the Chinese leadership.
Citing promises from Chinese Communist Party chief and President Jiang Zemin, Tung said that “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy will remain unchanged for a long, long, long, long time to come.”
Asked to comment on the march by roughly 3,000 pro-democracy protesters through the center of town Wednesday, Tung said, “Would I do it this way? Obviously not.” But he added: “I have repeated many times that demonstrations, so long as they are lawful and peaceful, can go right ahead.”
That march was seen as an important test of the tolerance level of the government of the new special administrative region, as China has esignated Hong Kong.
Although Tung earlier had expressed disapproval of the march, the demonstration went ahead without incident or interference from Hong Kong’s police.
Tung also conceded that his three children hold U.S. passports. The issue is a serious one in Hong Kong, where nearly 1 in 10 people hold foreign passports so that they can leave if the marriage of China and Hong Kong turns out badly. The rest of the territory’s people, however, are now Chinese citizens.