A Puzzling Departure

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Hong Kong people tend to trust Anson Chan, the territory's No. 2 leader, when she speaks in public. In more than seven years as head of the smooth-running civil service, the Chief Secretary has won respect for her integrity and independent spirit, as well as her talent for easing public anxieties with a few calming words. But when Chan, 61, announced last week she was resigning to spend more time with her family—more than a year before the end of her two-and-a-half-year contract—many saw an unspoken motive: politics. She is striking a heavy blow, says Lau Siu-kai, associate director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at Chinese University. She is sending the message to the outside world that she is less confident in Hong Kong. ALSO IN TIMECOVER: The Future of DrugsNow that our DNA has been decoded, the search for better, faster and more effective medications begins in earnest• Inside the Brave New Pharmacy: At a leading genomics firm, the star of the show is a robot• DNA Microarrays: The workhorse of genomic medicine• Bioinformatics: How to design a molecule• The Search for Cures: The fight against aids, cancer, mental illness, obesity, Alzheimer'sNORTH KOREA: Out of the BagA German doctor's close encounters with the Hermetic Kingdom shed light on the miserable living conditions in one of the world's last Stalinist states. Plus, excerpts from his diary THAILAND: The New No. 1The numbers are lining up for Prime Minister-elect ThaksinJAPAN: Murder on the WardsFears that a killer nurse has been on the loose lead to calls for a more open medical system THE PHILIPPINES: A Load of RubbishThe streets of Manila are overflowing with uncollected trashHONG KONG: Surprise FarewellA top civil servant's resignation puzzles the territoryMEDIA: A Guy on the MoveHong Kong mogul Jimmy Lai starts anew in TaipeiRELIGION: Muslim RebellionJapanese food-additive maker Ajinomoto comes under fire in Indonesia for an odd way of making MSGTRAVEL WATCH: Bear Necessities in Ancient, Spicy Chengdu The fear is that Chan, Hong Kong's first ethnic Chinese (and first female) Chief Secretary, is throwing in the towel over frustration with the territory's sluggish move toward democracy. While Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is generally viewed as a tycoon-friendly conservative who would give away the public's rights and freedoms if necessary to appease Beijing, Chan is regarded as Hong Kong's conscience—and, by extension, Tung's as well. Without her check and balance, things will go from bad to worse, predicts Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, a university-affiliated research group that analyzes the territory's political development. If the Chief Executive had been selected by popular vote, Chan—who consistently ranks high in job performance polls—would have been a shoo-in after Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. But Beijing clearly regarded her as too cozy with the former British administration, too outspoken and too strong an advocate for hastening the pace of democracy. Tung represented the opposite, but it made good politics to keep Chan on as No. 2. The relationship between the two soured, however, as Tung mishandled several crises and backed away from efforts to liberalize the political system. Last September, Beijing dealt a humiliating blow by publicly telling Chan and the civil service to provide better support for the Chief Executive.Despite the friction, Chan seemed intent on preserving the image of loyalty when she announced her resignation. The elegant, well-coiffed civil servant said that Hong Kong's economy was recovering and civil service reforms were mostly in place, so she could step aside to let a successor handle the job. She denied that she was quitting over matters of principle and dismissed inquiries as to whether she would run for Chief Executive. But as the public puzzles over the real reason for her resignation, attention is already turning to her potential replacement. Donald Tsang, the bow-tied Financial Secretary who is tipped as the most likely successor, probably wouldn't have the same streak of independence. Tsang is popular, but he is seen as someone who will bend himself to accommodate Tung, says Lau. Chan was always willing to resist Tung. There aren't many people who can compensate for that role. If Hong Kong is to preserve the independence Beijing once promised the territory, the next Chief Secretary will have to try. With reporting by Isabella Ng