Five years of hits and misses – Leung Chun-ying steps down as leader of a bitterly divided Hong Kong
He won plaudits for his ‘Hong Kong first’ measures and tackling livelihood issues, but was accused of toeing the Beijing line and ends his tenure as chief executive deeply unpopular with the public
Kwun Tong district councillor Yip Hing-kwok received a phone call one warm evening earlier this month as he was back home after a day’s work.
On the other end of the line was a familiar voice, inviting him and some residents to Government House for a gathering – the June 10 farewell tea party Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had with a score of Amoy Gardens residents.
“That is the CY I have known,” said Yip, recounting his talk with Hong Kong’s outgoing leader.
“He and the residents were exchanging chit-chat about the weather during his visit to our estate in May when he offered to invite the kaifong [local residents] to Government House in return for their hospitality. You might think he was only trying to be polite, but he would not take anyone lightly.”
The friendship between Leung and Yip, who is also a residents’ representative of Amoy Gardens, can be traced back to 2003 when the Kowloon Bay private residential estate was hit by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).
Leung, who was then convenor of the Executive Council, approached Yip and offered to help residents fix the faulty sewage system, which had been identified as a cause of the virus spreading in two blocks.
“The residents appreciated that very much. You know, at that time residents, and perhaps all Hong Kong people, felt so helpless,” Yip said, recalling the crisis that claimed the lives of 299 Hongkongers, of whom 42 lived in Amoy Gardens.
After that, the two men stayed in touch.
Depending on one’s political stance, Leung, who steps down on Friday after five years in the top post, is either a “ruthless wolf” or a down-to-earth government servant.
Commonly called CY, critics of the outgoing chief executive often call him “689” – a derisive dig at the number of votes he received from the 1,200-member Election Committee and suggesting his lack of a popular mandate.
During his tenure he has been credited with some “Hong Kong first” measures, including stopping pregnant mainland Chinese coming to the city to give birth – a decision that reportedly offended some mainland officials. He also imposed a so-called milk ban to safeguard the supply of infant formula for Hong Kong mothers.
On easing the hardship of the poor, recurrent government spending on social welfare has increased by 71 per cent during his term, from HK$42.8 billion in 2012-13 to HK$73.3 billion in 2017-18. The poverty rate also edged downward – from 19.6 per cent in 2012 to 14.3 per cent in 2015.
Even some of his harshest critics, such as Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung of the opposition Labour Party, agreed Leung had worked hard on tackling poverty.
Leung also boosted the housing supply and cracked down on property speculation to cool the market, although prices have continued to soar and are beyond the reach of many.
In the latest Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey released in January, flats in Hong Kong cost 18.1 times gross annual median income.
Critics of his housing policies also point to the 45 per cent increase in applicants for public housing – from 199,600 in July 2012 to 286,500 in September 2016.
The average waiting time for a public housing flat was 4.6 years as of March 2017, up from 2.7 years in 2012.
Housing Society chairman Marco Wu Moon-hoi, Leung’s adviser on housing during his election campaign in 2012, argued: “Building a flat is not like baking a loaf of bread. It takes a long time.
“We have to first plan the zoning, then identify suitable sites and do site formation before blocks can be built. And bear in mind in each of these processes, there would be rounds of public consultation, not to mention possible judicial reviews [against the plans].
“I am not suggesting that these are wrong. But it takes time to go through these procedures,” said Wu, who added it would not be fair to lay all the blame for runaway housing prices on Leung.
The problem, he argued, was partly due to the failure of Leung’s predecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, to ensure an adequate land supply for development during his term from 2005 to 2012.
Economically, Leung has also been credited with fostering closer cooperation with mainland China and helping open up these markets for Hong Kong investors.
The Mainland-Hong Kong Mutual Recognition of Funds Arrangement was launched in July 2015, allowing fund products from one place to be offered directly to investors in the other’s market.
As of the end of February 2017, 54 mainland and Hong Kong funds had been authorised under this arrangement, with total net sales amounting to about 7.4 billion yuan (HK$8.44 billion).
Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect and Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connect were launched in November 2014 and December 2016 respectively.
The schemes enable international investors to invest more widely in the mainland’s market through Hong Kong’s market, and also ease the opening up of the mainland’s capital market and the internationalisation of the yuan.
Earlier this year, Hong Kong and Shenzhen struck a deal on the development of an innovation and technology park near the border.
On the environmental front, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Pearl River Delta Regional Quality Monitoring Network was set up in 2014. In 2015 the annual average levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and respirable particulate matters in the region decreased by 72 per cent, 28 per cent, and 34 per cent respectively from 10 years ago.
But these achievements have done little to boost Leung’s popularity. While he won popular support during the 2012 election, his tenure is going to end with a low support rating.
His support rating was 53.8 out of 100 when he assumed office in early July 2012, according to a tracking poll by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme. The rating dropped steadily from there, reaching a record low of 36.2 in late May last year. His latest in early June was 37.6.
At any period during his tenure, his popularity ratings were lower than those of his predecessors, Donald Tsang and Tung Chee-hwa.
Raymond Mak Ka-chun, of the moderate political group Path of Democracy, said: “To be fair to him, CY has done not badly in tackling livelihood problems. But as the chief executive, we expect more from him. He has failed to unite other stakeholders in society to materialise his visions because he fails to win the people’s trust.”
Mak blamed Leung’s perceived “hostile” attitude towards the pan-democrats.
His views were echoed by Dr Chung Kim-wah, director of Polytechnic University’s centre for social policy studies, who said: “CY is hated for various reasons, one of which is that he is seen as toeing Beijing’s line too closely.”
Veteran Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming went further to say “it has become the Chinese Communist Party ruling Hong Kong” under Leung’s reign.
Leung’s rapid rise to power also sparked suspicions he had “special relations” with the Communist Party. Leung has repeatedly denied such claims.
Born in 1954 to a police officer father, Leung studied at what is now Polytechnic University and later at Bristol Polytechnic, now the University of the West of England.
After graduating he returned to work as surveyor in Hong Kong and formed part of a small group of Hong Kong professionals who regularly went gave lectures on market economics to mainland cadres in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangzhou and Shanghai in the late 1970s.
Between 1984 and 1997 he was involved in preparatory work for Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese sovereignty and the establishment of the Hong Kong special administrative region. He was also secretary general of the Basic Law Consultative Committee.
He became Exco convenor after the handover until he resigned in late 2011 to prepare his run for the top post.
The story of Leung’s rise should be proof of his resilience as well as his success in making friends in political circles. But, as the city’s leader, he is more notorious for being friendless.
“Leung is perhaps the most misunderstood politician, or perhaps, the worst victim of hostile media,” Cheung Chi-kong, Leung’s close aide and a member of his cabinet, who maintained that many of the claims about the chief executive were economical with the truth.
“Leung is a no-nonsense man. You may say he is not sociable, but he is not socially awkward. Perhaps a politician shouldn’t be like that. But he just wants to spare more time for real work,” Cheung said.
Legislator Ann Chiang Lai-wan, of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, shared similar views. “[During the annual session] in Beijing, CY rarely joined us for dining out or for a karaoke gathering,” Chiang said.
She has known Leung since the 1990s and both had served on the mainland’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
She called Leung a “rigid” man, citing the brouhaha between him and pan-democrat Kenneth Leung over whether the latter should quit the committee looking into the chief executive’s payment from Australian firm UGL when he was also being sued for defamation by the chief executive.
Mak cited this as an example of Leung’s “hostile attitude” towards those who did not agree with him – a conclusion which he claimed to have reached after learning about Leung from many heavyweights in the pro-establishment camp.
The leader of the pro-government Liberal Party, Felix Chung Kwok-pan, admitted his party had not been as close to the government during Leung’s term.
“If you do not give face to others, they for sure will not give you face,” said Chung, referring to the chief executive’s boycott of the party’s anniversary cocktail event in 2013.
The party’s legislators had declined to toe the government line over the Leung administration’s controversial decision not to issue a TV licence to Hong Kong Television Network, operated by businessman Ricky Wong Wai-kay, known for his critical stance against the government.
The chief executive had reportedly also asked his cabinet members not to attend the event.
As for the pan-democrats, as well as some quarters of the community, they blamed Leung for blocking progress towards the universal suffrage that Hong Kong was promised by Beijing under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
This triggered the Occupy protests in 2014, Leung’s sternest test during his term. Protesters occupied roads outside the government headquarters in Admiralty to call for universal suffrage. Clashes led police to use batons and tear gas.
Beijing gave a hardline response and came up with a restrictive framework for electing the chief executive. The electoral plan was voted down in the Hong Kong legislature, without the pan-democrats’ support.
Cheung said: “You can’t blame CY. He did not lay down the restrictive electoral framework. The opposition camp wanted to make use of Occupy protests to force Beijing to back down.
“The government had repeatedly warned them that it would not work. But they just didn’t listen.”
The Occupy crisis ended up elevating Leung’s standing in the eyes of the Beijing leadership. At the peak of the occupation protests in November 2014, President Xi Jinping met Leung on the sidelines of a forum in Beijing and commended him for his resilience in handling the protests, calling him “reliable in critical times”.
Although Leung made a shock decision not to run for a second term as Hong Kong leader, he is expected to stay active in politics. He is now a vice-chairman of the CPPCC and has pledged to “serve Hong Kong” from another position.
As he enters a new chapter of his political career, a campaign has been mobilised to rebrand him. In a series of video clips posted recently on the webpage of the pro-government site Speak Out HK, Leung’s friends and supporters praised him as an easy-going, caring, family man.
The website was managed by the United Hong Kong Foundation, of which the directors include core members of Leung’s 2012 campaign team, such as Mak Kwok-wah and Raymond Tang Yee-bong.
“Any politician can be rebranded. The tactic is to redirect focus,” Polytechnic University’s Chung said. “They want to remind us that, for all his negative image, the chief executive is not the worst thing.”