With hindsight, the mea culpa policy address delivered by Tung Chee-hwa on January 12 paved the way for his early departure, which is likely to be officially confirmed this month. By conducting a post-mortem on his past seven years of governance, he took the initiative in summing up his own shortcomings, while leaving the verdict on his work to the people. By listing the issues of concern that the government would be addressing, Mr Tung implied the administration would not stir up fresh controversies over issues like a goods and services tax. In effect, the policy speech marked the early end of the second Tung administration, as he turned himself into a caretaker before the election of the third chief executive. Against that background, the question of whether Mr Tung should step down early boiled down to a matter of face and its political ramifications for Hong Kong, the mainland and the international community. Conventional wisdom says it would be out of character for the Communist Party to sack Mr Tung, in view of the high political stakes involved. But an early exit will cause political embarrassment and a backlash in Beijing and Hong Kong, however much Mr Tung contributed to the handover. For Hong Kong people, Beijing's decision last year to rule out universal suffrage come as a shock and an eye-opener. The way the leadership under President Hu Jintao, aided by Zeng Qinghong , Beijing's new Hong Kong man, have handled the departure of Mr Tung speaks a lot about their decisiveness and self-confidence in dealing with Hong Kong. Rather than sitting idly by in the face of uncertainty over the next 21/2 years, Beijing seems prepared to bear the short-term pain for long-term gain. The elevation of Mr Tung to a possible vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, will hand him a role building bridges between Hong Kong and other parts of China. An early beginning of the transition towards the third administration is bound to create a host of uncertainties, anxieties and perhaps conflicts. Despite his popularity and strong administrative record, the succession of Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen does not appear to be assured. The big question is: will Beijing allow a real contest for the post, letting aspirants campaign on their deeds and words for support from the Election Committee and the community at large?