In the final act of a lengthy saga, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa officially resigned Thursday, breaking more than a week of silence and ending more than a seven-year term but possibly sparking a new round of political infighting by members of his cabinet against his widely tipped successor Donald Tsang.
As speculation is rife that Chief Secretary for Administration Tsang will succeed Tung, some members of Tung's outgoing cabinet are considering joining forces to block Tsang's bid to seek a second term in 2007, a source close to the government said.
Tsang, who will be acting chief executive after Beijing formally approves Tung's resignation tomorrow, can expect to face serious opposition from other Exco members.
During an emotionally charged press conference, Tung, dressed in a black suit and a crimson tie with white dots, said he was sad to be leaving but that he had resigned for health reasons.
"I have shared your pain and anguish," Tung said, his eyes moist with tears.
"Not one day passed when I did not work to ease your suffering and address your needs."
He began his final news conference as chief executive by saying: "An hour ago I tendered my resignation as chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR to the central government."
Appearing sad and subdued, the outgoing leader said that his health has been deteriorating since last year, forcing him to take painkillers. He did not go into details about his illness.
He insisted the decision to leave was his own. President Hu Jintao's public dressing-down in mid-December had nothing to do with it, he said.
"The central government has repeatedly affirmed the work I and my colleagues of the SAR government have done," he said.
"I will be 68 years old in three months' time. For someone who has been working 16 to 18 hours a day for a long long time, my health has been deteriorating.
"My doctor told me: `If you keep on doing this continuously, it will not be good for you. You must change the way you work, the way you live.' "
His job performance and judgment, Tung said, would suffer if he stayed on.
"I think it's better for me to step aside because there's a lot of work that needs to be done, for me to step aside and to have another person to carry this thing through ... I felt this was the responsible thing to do for Hong Kong and the country."
He said he hopes Beijing will approve his resignation "within days and not weeks."
However, Tung said he believes he could regain his health after a break and that will enable him to take up his new task as a vice-chairman of Beijing's top advisory body the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
After Beijing approves his resignation, Donald Tsang will become acting chief executive for six months until Tung's successor is elected in July.
He urged principal officials and Executive Councillors to stay on to assist through the transition period.
He dismissed concern that his departure might have an impact on the financial market.
Tung promised he would serve the country and Hong Kong in future, saying he would stay away from working in any private institution, including his family business, Orient Overseas Container Lines.
The press conference then turned sentimental as Tung said his most difficult decision in his 7-year tenure was to depart.
He said he was grateful for Hong Kong people's tolerance and understanding during the past seven years that saw the bursting of the economic bubble, the pain of economic restructuring and SARS, saying he would remember people's kindness.
"I will forever appreciate and remember your determination, patience and understanding over the past years. My feelings are very complicated right now. I really cannot bear to part with the people of Hong Kong," he said as he made his exit waving goodbye to reporters.
Minutes later, Tsang said solemnly that Tung was still his superior and the chief executive until the central government approved his resignation.
However, he said he respected Tung's decision to go, calling on the community to do the same.
"Mr Tung has dedicated himself wholly, selflessly to the job of governing Hong Kong, with an enormous sense of duty and humility. I admire his commitment and I admire his achievement. Having worked with him for over seven years, if his resignation is approved, I certainly feel a sense of loss. But I know that I must respect his decision and I hope very much the whole Hong Kong community will do the same," he said without answering reporters' questions.
Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten said he was not surprised. "He's done eight difficult years and (I'm) not surprised he's feeling a bit tired and wants to take things a bit easier," Patten said.
Tung goes to Beijing today to attend the CPPCC meeting at which he will be appointed a vice chairman.