- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

BEIJING — China’s leaders declared support for Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive yesterday, and President Hu Jintao was quoted as saying the territory’s people will accept a proposed antisubversion law that prompted huge protests.

The official Chinese Xinhua news agency said Mr. Hu “pledged firm support” for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, while Premier Wen Jiabao said he is certain Mr. Tung would lead Hong Kong out of its “current difficulties.”

Mr. Tung was on a one-day visit to Beijing to report on the biggest political crisis to confront his government since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. He has rejected appeals by critics who say his ability to govern has disintegrated and that he should resign for the good of Hong Kong.

“I still believe the leadership of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa certainly can lead the Hong Kong people to overcome the current difficulties,” Mr. Wen told reporters at the start of a meeting with Mr. Tung.

The Hong Kong chief executive has been trying to quell an uproar about an antisubversion bill, which critics say would undercut civil liberties. He said Thursday that he would open public consultations to try to build support.

Xinhua said Mr. Hu “expressed confidence that after undergoing earnest, extensive consultations, the law certainly will win the universal understanding, support and agreement of Hong Kong compatriots.”

Such a victory for Beijing and Mr. Tung appeared unlikely in light of Hong Kong’s reaction to the bill.

A protest July 1 drew 500,000 people out of a population of 6.8 million. It was the territory’s biggest demonstration since 1 million people turned out after China’s military assault on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy rallies in 1989.

Many in Hong Kong say their 1989 protest prompted Beijing’s insistence on requiring stiffer antisubversion penalties in the mini-constitution written for the territory.

Mr. Tung’s political crisis worsened earlier in the week when his security and finance secretaries resigned.

As Mr. Tung left his news conference in Beijing, a reporter shouted a question about whether Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen offered any advice on handling the political matter. Mr. Tung smiled and walked away without answering.

He told reporters on his morning flight to Beijing that he would not be discussing replacements for his Cabinet in his meetings, said Hong Kong government spokeswoman Yvonne Choi. She said Mr. Tung told reporters that the focus would be on Hong Kong’s troubled economy.

Mr. Tung said after the meetings that the leaders had discussed ways Hong Kong’s economy could grow with a free-trade agreement recently signed with China. It will open the mainland market to Hong Kong telecommunications, tourism and financial companies, Mr. Tung said.

“They emphasized that they have total confidence in me and the Hong Kong government to take forward the economic restructuring,” he said. “The leadership here really cares about Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong’s economy was staggering before the SARS epidemic erupted in March and made it worse.

The Hong Kong government said Thursday that unemployment had shot to a record 8.6 percent, with hotels, transportation companies and retailers hit hard by the outbreak that kept many Hong Kong people inside their apartments and visitors away.

The central government has given no indication of what Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen hope to do about Hong Kong’s worst political controversy since Mr. Tung, a former shipping tycoon, took office.

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