Hong Kong's Enigmatic Leader

CY Leung's term is off to a rocky start. But the problem may be more with Hong Kong's systems than its chief executive.

Hong Kong, the bustling but worried global financial center, has just acquired its third chief executive since changing from British colony to special administrative zone of China fifteen years ago. But precisely what Leung Chun-ying hopes to do as the new government leader remains a mystery. Most residents want, above all, more effective policies to resolve social tensions stemming from a widening gap between rich and poor. Leung says he will try, but there also are fears that in the process he will allow—even help—Beijing to whittle away at the civic freedoms that set the city so distinctively apart from the rest of the country.

One sign of discontent: a parody of Hong Kong’s official inauguration song became an instant Internet hit. Rather than let local pop stars urge them to “Believe in Our Dreams,” many netizens chose a satirical version that demands “Who’s Stolen Our Dreams?” It rails against soaring property prices, the rich-poor divide and the enormous wealth of those who dominate the real-estate market—before concluding “our future is bleak.”

CY Leung, as he is popularly known, has promised to do something about all this. His programs would diversify an economy too heavily dependent upon financial services and real estate, improve the lot of those in poverty and even inject more democracy into a top-down political system. The problem is that so many distrust him and aren’t certain just what or whom he really represents.

Anson Chan, the city’s former number-two official and a respected prodemocracy activist, calls him a “chameleon”; sharper critics contend he is a secret communist apparatchik waiting for Beijing’s orders, something he denies vehemently.

CY Leung’s stated policy goals are basically middle of the road with a populist streak: strengthening a free-market economy while expanding social programs for the nearly 20 percent of the populace that lives beneath the poverty line. And he vows to upgrade an education system that leaves too many young people underqualified, angry and restless, feeling excluded from opportunity in Hong Kong’s hugely profitable trade and finance sectors and susceptible to more radical appeals.

Much of the discontent and suspicion reflects the combination of Hong Kong’s top-down political system and CY Leung’s public personality. By any normal measure, the city of seven million people is a bona fide member of the developed world. Its gross domestic product exceeds $240 billion, and the per capita income is above $34,000. Hong Kong boasts the world’s busiest air-cargo hub and third-largest container port. The stock market is the world’s fifth largest, with capitalization close to $2.5 trillion. Although next-door China obviously is the main economic partner, the United States also plays an important role. More than sixty thousand Americans live there, with some 1,300 U.S. company offices pursuing a mix of local, Chinese and regional business. U.S. exports to Hong Kong last year exceeded $36 billion, making it America’s tenth-largest overseas market. Beyond all the numbers, Hong Kong people are generally well educated and not shy about expressing strong views whenever they think their civil rights may be in danger.

But they are stuck with a political system that generally denies them an effective voice. Hong Kong’s government is executive led, and its chief officer must have Beijing’s blessing to take office. Although half the legislature is popularly elected, the other half represents interest groups that mostly take government guidance in hopes of advancing their commercial interests. The legislature often can block unpopular government actions—leading to frustrating stalemate and general disdain for the entire system—but it cannot initiate anything that requires public spending.

A Mysterious Man

CY Leung remains an enigma to many. He’s the son of a policeman with a British education who became a multimillionaire as a property surveyor with an international firm. He has been appointed to various posts by the Hong Kong government and to a prestigious, but powerless, political advisory body on the mainland. He had never before campaigned for office but clearly knows something about politicking. In the run-up to the ballot that won him the top job, for example, he sent herbs and orchids supposedly grown by his own hand to the wives of influential politicians he barely knew—though he had correctly discovered their personal favorites. Overall, however, he has been seen as both ambitious and evasive.

He became chief executive when a special election committee of 1,200 local worthies gave him the most votes in what is known derisively as a “small-circle election,” required by terms that returned Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997. Beijing initially had backed his main opponent, Henry Tang, but switched to Leung’s side after Tang proved so unpopular that Chinese officials decided pushing him into office would be a dreadful mistake. Leung clearly has gained the mainland’s official blessing. Chinese president Hu Jintao showed up for the July 1 inauguration to lecture on what Beijing expects next, then left town rather than witness scheduled street protests against his regime’s many human-rights violations.