Tung gets a second shot at recognition

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

When he was chief executive they called him Mr 7-Eleven for his long working hours. So Tung Chee-hwa is the last person you would think would opt for a life of quiet relaxation after bowing out of politics.

It is hard to imagine him indulging in hobbies and immersing himself in charitable projects, given his broad interest in the affairs of China and the world.

As a vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, he ranks as a state leader. And it is no secret he has kept in regular contact with senior politicians, and business and community leaders overseas.

Given his long acquaintance with movers and shakers in China and elsewhere, in particular the United States, and his spell as the head of Hong Kong's government, he is well positioned to play more than a ceremonial role in politics.

Last week's announcement of the setting up of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, with Mr Tung as its chairman, shows he is keen to play a role in fostering relations between the two major powers.

The foundation's governing board comprises leading academics, professionals, and business and community leaders who share a long-term vision of strengthened China-US relations. Through programmes undertaken in partnership with institutions in China and the US, the foundation will facilitate policy research, support academic exchanges and create platforms for dialogue on issues relating to relations at all levels.

In view of Hong Kong's ties with the US and Hongkongers' increasing understanding of and identity with China, the foundation believes the city can play its part in improving Sino-US understanding.

In line with his low-key work style, and perhaps also in light of the foundation's political sensitivity, Mr Tung did not hold a formal press conference to elaborate on his thinking or the foundation's plans.

It is easy to understand the foundation's wish not to inflate expectations of what it can achieve. It is unrealistic to expect it can improve relations dramatically. That will never be easy given the complexities of the two countries and of international politics.

China's rising economic and political might has profound implications for its 1.3 billion people and its relations with other countries. In the US, fears of a recession, China's rise and the lingering threat of terrorism mean the end of George W. Bush's administration may herald a new period of uncertainty in the US and in its policy towards China.

You do not need to be an expert in diplomacy to observe the change of US strategy towards China under the Bush administration. They may have ever more interests in common, but the White House must strike a balance between co-operation and containment in view of the inherent differences between the countries and the conflicts in their relations.

Recent controversies over the safety of products, including food, imported from China to the US, and the entry of US naval ships to Hong Kong waters says something about the undercurrents in their relations.

Given the sharp differences that exist, there is no doubting increased exchanges would help reduce misunderstanding, misconceptions and mistrust. Bodies such as the foundation can unleash the potential for 'people's diplomacy', which assumes greater importance when government-to-government relations are vulnerable to domestic and international politics.

As Hong Kong's first chief executive, Mr Tung played a historic role in the city's political life. Ten years after the handover, the jury is still out on his legacy.

As with his visions of closer integration with the mainland and the transformation of Hong Kong into a knowledge-based economy, his initiative on Sino-US relations will come to be seen as the right way forward. However, it may take even longer to see the early fruits of improved transpacific ties than it did his ideas for Hong Kong.