MACAU - China's president, Hu Jintao, publicly urged Hong Kong's leader yesterday to improve his management of the semiautonomous Chinese territory, a comment widely seen as a rebuke.
In an unscheduled event at the end of a two-day visit here, Hu abruptly stepped forward while being photographed with Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, and other Hong Kong officials. Turning and standing in front of Tung, Hu started by saying that he believed Hong Kong was "moving in the right direction." But the president went on to warn Tung that he should "sum up experiences, find out the inadequacies, sharpen administrative abilities and continue to raise the quality of governance."
The reference to inadequacies was unusually blunt by the standards of Chinese political discourse. It was especially critical in tone for a comment on Hong Kong, where Chinese leaders have been reluctant to interfere in conspicuous ways.
Tung's administration has repeatedly tried to force through unpopular initiatives - such as filling in part of the harbor to make way for a superhighway - by saying that it understands the territory's long-term needs better than the public.
In the latest embarrassment, a legal challenge by a welfare recipient forced the indefinite postponement Sunday of a plan for the sale of $2.7 billion worth of shops and parking spaces at public housing projects.
The territory's problems have turned a democracy movement once limited to a few hundred activists into an important social force able to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. The next demonstration is planned for Jan. 1.
Hu's comment set off an immediate furor in Hong Kong. But as Tung has no clear successor, he remains likely to stay in office through the end of his second five-year term, in 2007.
Tung stood silently during the three-minute event, smiling briefly when it ended. After returning to Hong Kong, he called a rare news conference to emphasize Hu's remarks expressing support for the territory.
"It was not a dressing down," Tung said. "Indeed, the president did affirm the work we have done."