Unpopular Leung Chun-ying cannot possibly pass the 2017 test

Michael Chugani believes there's no chance that the vilified Leung could win a popular vote in 2017, and Beijing should not try to engineer it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 1:36am

A very senior government official recently asked me if it was possible to improve Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's dismal popularity ratings. I shook my head. Leung has a mission impossible: getting the people to judge him fairly. The current political mood simply doesn't lend itself to that.

Popularity ratings go up or down based on the policy successes, failures, and likeability of those polled. In Leung's case, Hongkongers are judging him not on his successes or failures but on their perception of what he is. The public perception of Leung is that of a liar, a divisive leader, an underground communist, and a chief executive who does Beijing's bidding.

Not everyone shares this perception but much of the mainstream media and the democracy camp have shaped it as the overwhelming view of the people. With such a negative image, policy successes can do little to lift his popularity.

His ratings continue to languish despite his many achievements. Before he even took office, he succeeded in stopping mainland mothers from giving birth here, freeing up hospital beds for locals. He eased the infant formula shortage with a two-tin limit for travellers, set a poverty line, issued a blueprint to tackle air pollution, and cooled the overheated property market. For the first time in years, my landlord is not raising my rent, citing falling prices.

If the people judged Leung purely on those achievements, his popularity would shoot up. But those successes have been lost in the animosity. Public fury over national education and the rejection of a free-to-air TV licence for Ricky Wong Wai-kay solidified the perception that he is Beijing's puppet, even though he inherited both issues from his predecessor. He has been stuck with a "liar" tag for not revealing his own illegal structures after having slammed election rival Henry Tang Ying-yen over his illegal basement. He is seen as one who cannot be trusted.

The media grew even more hostile when the mindset stuck that Leung wants to muzzle the media. And he earned more brickbats than kudos for successfully ending the prolonged stand-off between Hong Kong and the Philippines over the Manila hostage tragedy.

It will take a miracle for his popularity to rise as Hong Kong collides with the central government in the coming months over democratic reforms. Beijing will dictate the reforms we are allowed, not Leung, but as the chief executive, he will be swept up in the tsunami of anger if Hongkongers see the reforms as not true democracy. He has said he will run again in 2017, but can he win?

Yes, if Beijing wants him to. But will Beijing want him to? Probably, if no deal is reached on universal suffrage and the next leader is chosen under the existing undemocratic system. But if a deal is reached - even one that includes filtering out candidates considered unpatriotic - Beijing can expect public wrath if it tried to engineer a universal suffrage election victory of the unpopular Leung.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com