On 1st July, Tung Chee-hwa, a little known businessman with a marine engineering degree from Liverpool University, becomes Hong Kong's first chief executive. Philip Bowring considers what made Beijing choose Tung to manage the transition to Chinese sovereigntyby Philip Bowring / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
As first chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Tung Chee-hwa has already secured himself a place in history. But the Chinese-appointed successor to Chris Patten would have seemed an improbable choice a decade ago, when he was struggling to resurrect his collapsing family business. Even a year ago most people would have asked: Tung who? Hong Kong people of 35 and over will remember his father Tung Chao-yung, the shipping magnate who when he died in 1982 was one of only two or three Hong Kong citizens who qualified for the ranks of the globally famous. But Tung Chee-hwa, the elder son? He was nowhere on the Hong Kong scale of achievement or notoriety. He was a second rate businessman, viewed by the local business community as something of an outsider-a Shanghainese with most of his assets outside Hong Kong.
The choice in late 1996 of this anonymous businessman was intended by Beijing to indicate that business would continue to get priority in the new Hong Kong of “one country, two systems.” (Curiously, on the day of his appointment, shares in Tung’s company rose by 7 per cent while the rest of the stockmarket slumped, which may be a depressing market verdict on how Hong Kong will be run.)
What is Tung’s business background? The family shipping group, of which publicly listed Orient Overseas Container Holdings was the most visible but not the largest part, got into financial difficulties in the mid-1980s. It was eventually rescued with a lot of help from mainland China through the mediation of Henry Fok, a Hong Kong/Macau property and gambling tycoon whose close ties to the mainland stretch back to Korean war sanctions-busting.
Tung’s public relations machine has rewritten history to suggest that Tung’s father was responsible for the shipping group’s debacle. Typical was a glowing cover story on Tung in Time magazine at the time of his appointment. It claimed that the father had been “brashly continuing to place new orders” when other owners were cutting back, and depicted Tung as “cautious and conservative,” crediting him with “hacking away at the company’s ballooning debt and in-troducing western management techniques.”
The reality is that the father built his empire by putting secondhand ships to good use and buying out troubled western lines like Britain’s Furness Withy. In the two years before his death, only five new ships were ordered by…