Under pressure, Hong Kong leader makes public mea culpa

As he has done before, the leader of this politically-troubled city publicly apologized for the "failures and inadequacies" of his tenure - this time in a formal annual address. But Tung Chee Hwa, who is deeply unpopular with a wide swath of Hong Kong residents, did not address the basic causes of unhappiness with his administration, critics say.

The Beijing-picked chief executive, whose unelected rule has been the target of five mass marches and a feisty democracy movement since 2003, offered a long list of self criticisms. Mr. Tung said his government "lacked a sense of crisis," had been "indecisive," and need to show "sensitivity" to those less well off.

"It was a performance, not much else," says Michael DeGolyer, head of the Transition Project at Baptist University here, who questioned the level of sincerity. He says it reminded him of a song recorded by Paul McCartney and Wings that goes, "We're so sorry, Uncle Albert," sung in an insincere fashion. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly credited the song to the Beatles.]

The speech came after a dressing down of Tung by Chinese President Hu Jintao, when the two met in Macau in southern China last month. Mr. Hu's government in Beijing has stressed a "people first" policy of social harmony. Tung, a wealthy tycoon, is known to owe allegiance to former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who oversaw the rise of a culture of commercialization in China. Mr. Jiang stepped from power in September.

Hong Kong came under pressure by lawsuits from business interests last fall for what seemed to be favoritism in several major contract and development deals. A huge set of apartment towers that were never occupied were slated to be torn down and rebuilt. A $2.7 billion sale of a real estate trust was stopped by the courts. And a major construction project of museums, shopping centers, and housing on an empty peninsula in west Kowloon has been on hold since it was discovered that the deal might go to a single developer.

Hong Kong has a tradition of greater transparency and a presumption of a level playing field in business. Yet reports of favoritism for a small set of tycoons has undercut public happiness and confidence, critics say.

"We are resolutely against a collusions between business and government," Tung stated this week. "We will help those who ... feel antagonistic toward the central government to change their minds."

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