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Embattled Hong Kong Leader May Quit Soon

Hong Kong's unpopular leader could resign as early as next week because of ill health, ending a rocky eight years in office that saw massive protests for greater democracy in the former British colony, local media reported Wednesday.

Most of the Chinese-ruled territory's newspapers filled their front pages with bold headlines and stories saying that unidentified "sources in Beijing" have confirmed that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (search) has tendered his resignation and that it was accepted.

But some of the reports disagreed about whether China's leadership wanted Tung to go. The Ming Pao Daily News reported that Chinese leaders asked Tung to stay on, but he insisted on quitting and they finally relented. The stated reason for resigning would be bad health, the paper said.

However, the Hong Kong Economic Journal — respected for its sober analysis — reported that Beijing lost faith in Tung's ability to lead the government and ensure greater stability in Hong Kong. The Communist leadership thought it better for Tung to leave sooner than later, the paper said.

After Tung flew to Beijing on Wednesday for a series of meetings, he declined to directly address the reports of his resignation. "I know there are many questions you are concerned with, and I will make an announcement at an appropriate time," Tung told reporters.

The South China Morning Post reported that the No. 2 ranking official, Donald Tsang (search), would take over until a new leader was elected within six months. Tsang is a lifelong bureaucrat who — unlike Tung — has a reputation for being a savvy politician.

Tung has led Hong Kong since Britain returned the territory to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula designed to give the city a wide degree of autonomy and limited democracy. He was elected by an 800-member committee loyal to Beijing.

The portly 67-year-old Tung, who sports a gray crew cut, is a millionaire scion of a Shanghai shipping family. Many believe his privileged background and career as an elite businessman has hindered his ability to connect with the common people.

Tung's many critics have accused him of mishandling major crises, including the 1997 Asian financial crisis that threw Hong Kong into recession and the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS (search), which killed hundreds and ravaged the city's economy.

He has also resisted calls for greater democracy, including the freedom for voters to directly elected their leader and legislature. Twice in the past two years, half a million Hong Kongers have marched in the streets demanding more democracy.

There has been a steady flow of rumors in recent years that Tung would quit before his second five-year term ended in 2007. The speculation intensified this week when it was announced that Tung would join an elite advisory panel to the Chinese parliament.

It was also reported that Tung would soon be promoted to vice chairman in the group, called the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The body convenes Thursday in Beijing, and Tung was to leave today to join the group.

The theory was that Tung's status of vice chairman would give him the ranking of a state leader in China's hierarchy. The promotion could be a face-saving way to remove him from his Hong Kong office.

Lee Kwok-keung, a CPPCC member from Hong Kong, told reporters it was still unclear whether Tung would resign.

The mass-market Apple Daily reported that Tung could resign as early as next week after he's promoted to vice chairman.

One explanation for his resignation might be that it would trigger an election within the Beijing-backed 800-member committee, which would install a new leader who would serve a full five-year term.

This would help Beijing stall on dealing with growing demands to make the currently scheduled 2007 election for Tung's replacement more democratic. Such political reforms could be put off until 2010.