After Leung Chun-ying, Beijing doesn’t need another Hong Kong leader who only plays hardball

Gary Cheung believes the chief executive’s departure signals the changing scope of the city’s top job, as the central government now wants someone who can rally the people

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 5:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 10:48am

In early March 2005, rumours were rife in Hong Kong that embattled chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was about to step down. When asked, however, Hong Kong delegates gathered in Beijing for the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference brushed aside the media speculation, calling Tung a man of determination who would press on despite his flagging public popularity. After all, his supporters reasoned, Beijing strongly backed him.

A few days later, Tung announced his resignation, citing health reasons.

CY Leung’s decision not to run came out of the blue for many

History repeated itself 11 years on. Most pro-establishment figures were similarly stunned last Friday when a stone-faced Leung Chun-ying made the jaw-dropping announcement that he would not seek a second term as chief executive at a hastily arranged press conference. Until then, all of Leung’s supporters had full confidence the surveyor turned leader – who appears to enjoy Beijing’s trust because of his tough governing style – would rule the city for another five years.

Leung’s withdrawal from the race defies the conventional wisdom that Beijing would prop up a tough but unpopular chief executive in Hong Kong

As recently as a few days before Leung announced his decision, commentaries written by some of his most ardent supporters were published in Chinese-language newspapers, predicting that his potential rivals, including Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, would have no chance.

Leung’s withdrawal from the race defies the conventional wisdom that Beijing would prop up a tough but unpopular chief executive in Hong Kong. Pundits believed Leung’s uncompromising stance against activists calling for Hong Kong independence scored points with the state leaders. President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ), who is also known for his tough governing style, surely favoured Leung in the upcoming chief executive race, they said.

Yet those who subscribed to this line of thought, based on their understanding of the Communist Party, might not have noticed that the central government’s expectations of the chief executive have changed.

For a start, the central government may no longer need the SAR leader to play a leading role on matters of national sovereignty, because Beijing has of late shown itself willing to take up the cudgels. Its recent interpretation of the Basic Law on oath-taking, which targeted advocates of Hong Kong independence, was a case in point.

Beijing no longer needs a chief executive who plays hardball all the time. Instead, it wants him or her to focus more on Hong Kong’s internal affairs and facilitate economic development and social harmony. Leung does not fit into the central government’s new thinking.

Hong Kong business leaders hold out hope for change after Leung Chun-ying declines second tilt at top job

It would be naive to assume that the next chief executive will be decided by public opinion in Hong Kong, but it would also be too simplistic to suppose Beijing would completely ignore the views of Hongkongers. I believe Leung’s withdrawal from the race is proof that public opinion still matters. At the end of November, Leung’s popularity rating stood at 40.7 out of a possible 100 marks, according the tracking poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme.It was even lower than the 47.9 scored by Tung in March 2005.

As there is no realistic hope for Leung to boost his popularity in the next three months, it would be a tall order for Beijing to back Leung, whose popularity could trail his expected challengers by 20 to 30 percentage points.

Leung himself benefited from the public opinion game in the 2012 chief executive election. The early front runner was former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, who was Beijing’s favoured candidate. But Leung gradually gained the upper hand as his popularity surpassed Tang’s, whose campaign was eventually derailed following the revelation that he had a large illegal basement in his home.

Leung’s own popularity began to fall soon after he took office in 2012, following news of illegal structures at his home and his government’s ham-fisted attempt to introduce national education in schools. His lack of affinity with members of the public and the elite also doesn’t help.

Last year, former chief secretary David Akers-Jones said Leung was “familiar with the problems of Hong Kong”, but “doesn’t have the art of making or causing people to love him”. Akers-Jones, who supported Leung in the 2012 chief executive election, is backing former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee in this election.

Leung Chun-ying’s decision gives an opportunity for a new start

Leung has become so unpopular, and his trustworthiness has sunk so low in the public’s eyes, that he can hardly do or say anything without it – and his motives – being questioned.

One example is the knee-jerk reaction from many journalists, commentators and pan-democrats who suspected the chief executive had set up John Tsang in the brouhaha over whether government officials should take questions from lawmakers facing a legal challenge.

At a Legislative Council panel meeting last Monday, the financial secretary caused an uproar by refusing to take questions from four pan-democratic lawmakers who face disqualification if their oaths are found to be invalid. The position was roundly criticised, and the government backtracked a few hours later, with Leung claiming that Tsang had not informed him, nor any of his fellow ministers, of his plan to reject lawmakers’ questions. Still, most commentators and pan-democrats sympathised with Tsang, and believed he was set up by Leung.

Indeed, few take Leung at his word. This lack of public trust is the chief executive’s biggest problem.

Despite his divisive style, Leung should be given credit for his efforts to take on long-standing problems such as inadequate land supply. He also scored points by stopping pregnant mainland women coming to give birth in Hong Kong.

Watch: Leung Chun-ying will not seek a second term

Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying: Cunning wolf or loyal government servant?

For all these efforts, however, he is likely to be remembered more for exercising power with little self-restraint. During his term, he appointed many of his supporters to key posts in influential statutory bodies, raising eyebrows with some and provoking public protests with others. As chief executive, Leung is of course empowered to make these appointments. But he has clearly failed to build up broad-based support for his administration.

His decision not to run for a second term has thrown the chief executive election wide open. A candidate who can strike a fine balance between securing Beijing’s trust and winning the hearts and minds of Hongkongers will stand a high chance of landing the top job.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor