President of China Warns Hong Kong's Leader to Do a Better Job
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By KEITH BRADSHER
<P>Published: December 21, 2004</P>
MACAO, Dec. 20 - President Hu Jintao of China publicly urged Hong Kong's leader on Monday to improve his management of the semiautonomous Chinese territory, a comment widely seen as a rebuke.
<P>In an unscheduled event at the end of a two-day visit here, President Hu abruptly stepped forward while being photographed with Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, and other Hong Kong officials in a briefing hall lined with tall red curtains.
Turning and standing about two yards in front of Mr. Tung, the president started by saying that he believed that Hong Kong was "moving in the right direction." But he went on to warn Mr. Tung that he should "sum up experiences, identify shortcomings, sharpen administrative abilities and continue to raise the quality of governing."
<P>While Mr. Hu has been urging improved government in speeches across China, the reference to shortcomings was unusually blunt by the standards of Chinese political discourse. It was especially critical in tone for a comment about Hong Kong, where Chinese leaders have been reluctant to interfere in conspicuous ways.
<P>The seven years since Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule have been difficult. The territory's problems have turned a democracy movement once limited to a few hundred advocates into an important social force able to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. The next demonstration is planned for Jan. 1.
<P>The economy has stagnated and property prices have plunged, although both have finally been improving this year. Last year, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, sickened or killed more people in China, relative to the population, than anywhere else in the world, and many have blamed the government's slow initial response to the disease.
<P>Mr. Tung's administration has repeatedly tried to force through unpopular initiatives - like filling in part of the harbor to make way for a highway - by saying that it understands the territory's long-term needs better than the public does. In the latest embarrassment, a legal challenge by a 67-year-old welfare recipient forced the indefinite postponement on Sunday night of a plan to sell $2.7 billion worth of shops and parking spaces within public housing projects.
Mr. Hu's comment late Monday morning caused a furor in Hong Kong.
<P>"It's more than a slap on the wrist, it's a slap to the face," said Shaw Sin-ming, a Hong Kong political commentator. But he and other political analysts said Mr. Tung was likely to stay in office through the end of his second five-year term in 2007, because he has no clear successor.
<P>Mr. Tung stood grim-faced and silent during the three-minute event, smiling briefly when it ended. Returning to Hong Kong, he called a rare news conference to emphasize Mr. Hu's more positive opening remarks.
"It was not a dressing down, in fact - indeed, the president did affirm the work we have done," Mr. Tung said. He also said his 20-minute closed-door meeting with President Hu before the semipublic photo opportunity had been cordial.
<P>Mr. Hu came here to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Portugal's return of Macao to Chinese rule. In contrast to Hong Kong, 40 miles away across the mouth of the Pearl River, Macao has boomed since the Chinese took over, as casinos here have thrived with the relaxation of visa restrictions on Chinese visitors.