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Friday, 12 January, 2001, 20:36 GMT
Anson Chan: End of an era
Anson Chan
Mrs Chan was a figure of continuity
By Damian Grammaticas in Hong Kong

As I sat and watched Anson Chan announce her resignation I was struck by the feeling that what was being played out in a soulless conference room in government headquarters, was the end of one era for Hong Kong.

Anson Chan embraced her boss, Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed leader, the Chief Executive Tung Che Hwa, and said she was leaving for personal reasons.

Few present believed her, most think that she and Mr Tung simply could not get on.

"After over 38 years in the civil service, I feel it is time for a change, time for new blood," she said. Mrs Chan is a woman with an enormous sense of duty, a real dedication to the values that built Hong Kong into a successful territory.

She is also immensely popular in Hong Kong. Saying she wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren did not sound convincing.

Mrs Chan joined Hong Kong's civil service 37 years ago. She rose to become the first woman and the first Chinese person to head Hong Kong's colonial civil service.

She was very much a figure of continuity, the most senior figure to straddle the British and Chinese eras in Hong Kong. But she is the last in a line of senior civil servants appointed under British rule. Her resignation will mean that continuity is lost.

The question is what else will be lost with it? Will Hong Kong lose some of the qualities that have made it so prosperous.


Everyone in Hong Kong has their own theory about why Mrs Chan really decided to go. Christine Loh, a former legislator believes Mrs Chan and Mr Tung may have had a serious disagreement over a specific issue, perhaps Mr Tung's plans to reform the civil service.

Anson Chan (L) and Tung Che Hwa (R)
Most people thing Mrs Chan and Mr Tung could not get on
Mrs Chan has always been a defender of the impartiality of the civil service.

Mr Tung wants to introduce more ''accountability" and appoint outsiders to senior positions. It would make for a more pliable bureaucracy, one easier to bend to Mr Tung's will.

There have been a number of disagreements between Mrs Chan and her boss in the past three years.

She opposed Hong Kong's recent bid to host the Asian Games. She did not like some of his policies on housing. She wanted him to sack an unelected aide who tried to suppress unfavourable opinion polls. He refused.

Most of all Hong Kong's civil servants disliked reforms Mr Tung has pushed through.

Last summer they took to the streets and held rallies to show their opposition. A few weeks later Mrs Chan was given a humiliating rebuke in Beijing and told to ensure she and the civil servants gave better support to their master.

Some even speculate she has resigned in order to launch a challenge to Mr Tung's leadership next year. Without Beijing's support, that may be unlikely.

Uncertain future

But none of these alone seems to explain Anson Chan's resignation.

Hong Kong
Mrs Chan was dedicated to the values that made Hong Kong successful
Instead it seems more likely to have been because of her dislike for Mr Tung's approach to government.

Stephen Vines, a commentator in Hong Kong says "essentially she is working under a system where she doesn't have his confidence. His style is not to consult, and he only delegates power to a very few people."

The worry now for Hong Kong is that what will happen after Mrs Chan's departure.

She has always been seen as a person who is very much committed to Hong Kong's constitution, its system, its freedoms and its liberties.

She has always been identified as a defender of local values in the face of possible interference by Beijing.

There are many more doubts about Mr Tung. He is seen as far more willing to identify himself with the interests and views of the Chinese leadership.

It will be a very big blow to Hong Kong if Mrs Chan is replaced by someone who is a less stout defender of the territory's traditional values.

Martin Lee, the leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party says he wants to see Mrs Chan's successor show the same "continual commitment to speaking up for Hong Kong, safeguarding Hong Kong people's interests, and defending our freedoms and human rights."

With Anson Chan's departure, Hong Kong, takes a definite stride away from its colonial past, but its future is harder to divine.

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