Hong Kong in shock as Chief Executive CY Leung decides not to seek re-election
City leader cites ‘unbearable pressure’ race would exert on his family
Hong Kong’s embattled leader on Friday left the city stunned and threw next year’s chief executive election wide open by announcing that he would not seek a second term to spare his family “unbearable pressure”.
Eyes were glued to television screens and mouths hung open in shock as a grim-faced Leung Chun-ying told Hong Kong that he was calling it quits in a hastily arranged press conference at 3.30pm, an hour after the government gave the media a heads-up.
“If I run my family will suffer unbearable pressure due to my electioneering ... I must protect them,” he said, upending every expectation that his re-election bid for March was a done deal.
It is understood that Leung, who said he had pondered over the decision for several days, made up his mind on Thursday after consulting Beijing. That same night, he was seen at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin, where his often troubled daughter, Leung Chai-yan, was said to be receiving treatment for an unspecified ailment.
Watch: Leung Chun-ying announces he will not seek a second term
A source familiar with Beijing’s thinking said Leung’s daughter’s condition was one of the key factors that prompted the unexpected – almost unbelievable – move, but it was not the only cause.
“Mr Leung is a good candidate for the next chief executive and he always puts the interests of Hong Kong and the country as top priority,” the source said. “He had discussed with the central government the best way forward for Hong Kong. The central government has also considered how the situation in Hong Kong will develop if Leung governs Hong Kong for another five years.”
The chief executive, considered a highly polarising figure who has struggled to overcome his constantly low popularity ratings, was at pains to clarify that his decision was not due to any lack of endorsement from Beijing.
“[The central government] has always supported me and said I have done a good job,” he said.
Beijing backed that claim in a statement issued shortly after the announcement, with the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office saying it deeply regretted Leung’s decision.
“Mr Leung has steadfastly implemented the ‘one country, two systems’ formula and the Basic Law since taking up office, and has made important contributions in defending national sovereignty and security,” the office said. Beijing had always fully affirmed Leung’s work, it added.
Media reports that office director Wang Guangya had met Leung to persuade him not to seek re-election were denied by the source.
New World Development chairman Henry Cheng Kar-shun, one of Leung’s influential supporters, said he believed the chief executive’s decision had nothing to do with Beijing.
Ray Yep Kin-man, a political scientist at City University, said the announcement, which came two days ahead of polls for the Election Committee, might be due to Beijing’s intention to sway the election of the 1,200-member body that will pick the next chief executive.
“Beijing is worried about the uncertainty if pan-democrats win 300 seats in the committee and another 200 candidates who oppose Leung are returned,” Yep said. “With Leung’s decision not to run, the ‘Anyone But CY’ campaign will lose its momentum.”
All attention has now shifted to who stands a higher chance to take up the top job with Leung out of the picture.
“I hope to let all friends who have the intention of running know the latest situation as soon as possible, as whether they will run depends on whether I seek re-election,” Leung said.
A government source said that appeared to point to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who has been tipped as a strong possible candidate, although she has repeatedly denied it.
Lam did not respond to media questions Friday while a spokesman for Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, another widely tipped candidate, said he understood and respected Leung’s decision.
The pan-democratic camp reacted with excitement that its arch-enemy was no longer in the leadership race, but also vowed to “remain vigilant”.
Legislative Council president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen blamed Leung for his “zero-sum game” approach in handling the opposition.
Liberal Party stalwart James Tien Pei-chun, one of Leung’s fiercest critics, said Beijing had heeded the people’s wishes and signalled the need to build harmony.