Despite some failings, Leung Chun-ying has also enjoyed his share of successes
Hong Kong leader leaves office tomorrow with a mixed record of his five years in charge of one of the world’s most vibrant cities
When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying took office in 2012, hopes were high that he would steer Hong Kong to a brighter future. He rightly made affordable housing, poverty alleviation and dealing with an ageing population the government’s priorities, while at the same time striving to boost the economy and push for greater democracy. Certainly, a lot of efforts have been made, some of which have borne fruit. But his policies and governance style have also upset some quarters in society. Tomorrow, he will step down after his five years in charge. Whether he is leaving the city in better shape for his successor, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, is open to debate.
Formerly a surveyor and a top adviser to the Hong Kong and central governments, Leung came to office amid growing social divide and discontent. Armed with a notebook and a foldable chair on his campaign trail, he sought to portray himself as a leader of the people. Five years on, some people are probably still impressed by his down-to-earth approach and remain staunch supporters. But there are also those who are happy to see him go. Surveys conducted by the University of Hong Kong show his support rating has tumbled from a peak of 56.5 out of 100, in October 2012, to 38.7 this week.
Leung has been more controversial than his two predecessors. While he has been leader for only five years, the shortest time in the top office since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 , his term has arguably been more eventful. There have been many controversies, with the impacts of some still being felt today. The community has also become more polarised on social, economic and political issues.
This is not to say that Leung has failed miserably, though. Despite a series of accusations against him and members of his cabinet in the initial months, the embattled leader managed to produce some results in his first year in charge. Some of his “Hong Kong-first”policies, such as banning mainland mothers from giving birth here and restricting the trafficking of baby milk formula out of the city to safeguard supply for local consumption are still appreciated today.
Indeed, the final report card released by the government on Tuesday appears impressive. The 95-page document boasts a long list of achievements, including some which critics say cannot be directly attributed to Leung’s efforts. Major setbacks, such as the ill-fated political reform process, were omitted. Nonetheless, the report underlines his eagerness to deliver on his promises. From dealing with political upheavals to ticking off most of the items on his to-do list, it is tempting to commend the outgoing leader for doing a pretty good job.
But there are still issues to be considered before Leung can be given a passing grade. For instance, the output of private and public housing in the next few years is expected to reach 94,000 and 96,000 units respectively, 42 and 48 per cent higher than the results produced by the previous administration. He also spared no effort in enhancing land supply, including the bold proposal to build public housing on the fringes of country parks. Nevertheless, property prices are still sky-high. The several rounds of cooling measures introduced by his government do not seem to have had much effect. For many prospective homebuyers, affordable housing remains a distant goal.
A similar paradox is also found on the social front. Thanks to the adoption of a poverty line to provide more focused support for the needy, the city’s poverty rate has eased from 19.6 per cent in 2012 to 14.3 per cent in 2015. The number of people receiving comprehensive social security payments has also dropped to a 16-year low, while various subsidies for the underprivileged have been introduced or enhanced. However, the Gini coefficient – an indicator of wealth gap in society – hit a new high last year, making us only second in the world after New York in terms of income inequality.
On the economic front, tourism and retail sales are picking up following a worrying downturn. An innovation and technology bureau is finally in place to drive new growth. Efforts are also made to seize the opportunities that will come from Beijing’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” and the Greater Bay Area that will link cities in the Pearl River Delta region. But there is still much work ahead.
Perhaps more worrying is the deepening divide in society. The rising tension between the executive arm and the legislature is already threatening effective governance. The perceived erosion of the city’s high degree of autonomy has fuelled unrealistic calls for independence. Some developments were beyond Leung’s control. But the situation we now find ourselves in was shaped, in some ways, by his policies.
As the head of the special administrative region, the chief executive is ultimately responsible for everything, be it good or bad. Whether Leung will go down in history as a good leader remains to be seen. Questions over his past business dealings with an Australian firm are still hanging in the air, although he has denied any wrongdoing. What is certain, though, is that his role as a vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference will keep him in the public spotlight beyond his final day in office tomorrow.