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Heads roll in Hong Kong

Hong Kong, July 16 (Reuters): Two senior members of Hong Kong’s cabinet, both publicly vilified in the territory’s biggest political crisis in decades, have resigned, the government said today.

Financial secretary Antony Leung, bitterly criticised for buying a $100,000 luxury car just before he announced a tax hike on vehicles, resigned today, the government said.

Security secretary Regina Ip, the official who championed the controversial subversion bill which was withdrawn after massive popular outrage earlier this month, resigned for personal reasons last month, it said.

Although such resignations are unprecedented in Hong Kong, the former British colony which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, it was questionable whether they would take pressure off the territory’s embattled chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. Leung and Ip were the two officials who came under the most fire in Tung’s unpopular cabinet, but much criticism has also been heaped on the Beijing-appointed leader himself.

“This is not the end of the story. People want a better system and the campaign is now directed at greater democracy,” said political commentator Andy Ho.

Anger at Tung — who was installed by China and not popularly elected — has snowballed into Hong Kong’s biggest democracy push in decades.

The government said Ip had tendered her resignation on June 25, just days before half-a-million people took to the streets in one of the city’s biggest demonstrations in decades to denounce the government and the planned National Security Bill.

Leung has been under fire for other reasons and the territory’s justice department said earlier yesterday it was considering whether to charge him over the car controversy. The flamboyant former banker maintained his innocence and donated HK$380,000 ($48,700) to charity soon after the scandal surfaced earlier this year.

A government source said the department was likely to seek external legal advice to avoid any perceptions of conflict of interest.

DECISION IN A FEW WEEKS

The source said a decision on whether to prosecute would be made in a few weeks.

Leung, who already owned a Porsche and a four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser, bought the HK$790,000 ($101,280) Lexus car in January.

At the time, he was heavily involved in discussions about whether to raise taxes to help plug the city's deficit. He announced a tax hike on new vehicles in the budget in March.

After a local newspaper exposed his purchase, Leung denied he was avoiding the new tax of HK$50,000 and said he needed the new car for the arrival of his first-born, a daughter, in February.

Tung later censured Leung for“serious negligence”, saying he had breached the ministerial code of conduct. But he refused to accept Leung's offer to resign despite calls to sack him.

Ip, 52, was one of the highest-ranking women in the Hong Kong government and, as the main person pushing the subversion bill, came under fierce fire from the public, human rights groups and even legal experts.

Opponents of the legislation say it poses the biggest threat to basic human rights since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule. They fear it will be used to silence anyone critical of leaders here or in Beijing.

If anything, Ip seemed to thrive on the criticism. But her increasingly hostile attacks on anyone who dared express misgivings about the bill came to symbolise for many the government's arrogance and distance from the people.

Many critics had said Tung or his most unpopular ministers would have to step down to restore the Beijing-backed government's rapidly fading credibility.

The size of the July 1 protest rattled Hong Kong's elite, splitting Tung's ruling coalition. He was forced into a humiliating postponement of the legislation days later, but vowed to reintroduce it at a later date.

Beijing has been pushing Tung to enact the law, but China's leaders have been careful to avoid publicly entering the fray for fear of being seen openly meddling in Hong Kong's affairs.

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