- Observers and lawmakers say central government made the move with current political crisis engulfing city in mind
- Tung is the only Hongkonger on a list of 42 awardees to get national medals and honorary titles as part of 70th anniversary commemoration
Former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa has been recognised by Beijing for his contribution to the "one country, two systems" governing principle over the city, with the Communist Party's mouthpiece praising him for having properly handled complicated issues and safeguarding national security during his tenure.
Lawmakers and commentators also said they believed Beijing had Hong Kong's current situation in mind when it heaped praise on Tung, as the former British colony remained in the grip of mass protests since June.
Sparked by the now to-be-withdrawn extradition bill, the campaign has since morphed into an anti-government movement amid escalating violence in clashes between police and protesters, with petrol bombs hurled by radicals, train stations vandalised and the Chinese national flag burned.
Xinhua announced on Tuesday that President Xi Jinping signed a decree to award 42 individuals national medals and honorary titles, as part of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Former chief Tung Chee-hwa says US and Taiwan masterminded protests
Hundreds of Hong Kong dignitaries, including embattled leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, are expected to attend a grand celebration in Beijing on October 1.
But the Hong Kong government announced on Wednesday that in view of the latest situation and considering public safety, the National Day Fireworks Display originally scheduled to take place at Victoria Harbour on that night will be cancelled.
Tung was among the 42 awardees, who were mostly nominated by the Communist Party's leadership last month.
Tung, Hong Kong's first postcolonial chief executive after its return to Chinese rule in 1997, was also the only Hongkonger on the list. He was given the honorary title of "outstanding contributor to one country, two systems".
As the People's Daily ran a short bio of each of the awardees on Wednesday, it praised Tung, 82, for making important contributions to the implementation of the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution, as well as Beijing's governing principle on Hong Kong, which allows the city a high degree of autonomy.
"He led the city's government and people from all walks of life in Hong Kong to successfully resist the difficulties brought about by the Asian financial crisis, changes in the external economic environment and the Sars epidemic," the piece stated, in reference to hurdles during Tung's term from 1997 to 2005.
"Many complicated social, political and economic issues were properly handled, the overall interests of Hong Kong and the nation's sovereignty, security and development were safeguarded. (He also) made significant and historic contribution to Hong Kong's smooth handover and the successful implementation of one country, two systems."
Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said the praise reflected the central government's hope that Hong Kong officials will unite society in ending the current impasse.
"It is undeniably applicable to Hong Kong … as Beijing wants Hong Kong's leaders to learn from Tung's sincerity and devotion," he said.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Leung Che-cheung also said he believed the central government wanted the opportunity to show its concern for Hong Kong.
"Tung deserves the honour as he resolved big crises during his time. It was also an important message for Hong Kong, as the city made special contributions to the country in the past decades," he said.
During the early years of Tung's tenure from 1997 to 2005, Hong Kong had maintained a relatively positive relationship with the mainland. But Tung's policies on housing, education and his push for the unpopular Article 23 national security bill in Hong Kong led to a massive anti-government rally on July 1, 2003, when half a million people took to the streets. Tung withdrew the bill two months later, and stepped down as chief executive in 2005, citing health issues.
Lau said that to Beijing, it was Tung's willingness to push forward those polices that mattered.
"No Chinese official can accomplish all missions from Beijing," he said.
Lau also suggested Beijing appreciated the efforts that Tung made on the US-China front.
In 2008, Tung set up the China-United States Exchange Foundation as a "privately funded, non-governmental, non-profit entity". The organisation said it aimed to "build platforms to encourage constructive dialogue and diverse exchanges between the people of the US and China" through holding forums, funding think tanks and student exchange programmes.
Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.