Hong Kong's Enigmatic Leader

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.

In his inaugural address and elsewhere, Leung has tried to allay public concerns. In contrast to his more reclusive predecessors (whose terms ended unhappily), he already has visited Hong Kong’s eighteen districts more than one hundred times and plans many more meet-and-greet sessions at which he listens as well as speaks. His pledges include proactive policies to diversify the economy without eroding the crucial financial sector, greater efforts in education, more public housing, improved healthcare and a high-level Commission on Poverty.

And he hasn’t neglected the softer side. He also pledges “to uphold justice, protect the rights of the people, safeguard the rule of law, clean government, freedom and democracy which are amongst the core values of Hong Kong,” citing press freedom in particular. These values set Hong Kong apart from the rest of the nation, for they permit activities quite illegal under Communist Party rule—such as publishing books banned in China. Also included are serious anticorruption laws not found on the mainland, where corruption is an essential glue that helps hold the ruling system together.

But none of this leaves everyone reassured. The fact that he gave his inaugural address in China’s official Mandarin rather than the local Cantonese was taken as a sign of where his true loyalties lie. One of his first visits after election was to pay respects at the Beijing government’s local office. For years, there have been allegations that CY Leung is a secret communist agent, which he repeatedly denies though he clearly has long been on good terms with its officials. (Oddly, the party that rules China has no legal standing in Hong Kong and membership can be a political liability.) A prominent officeholder says she would “never” work for him because he can’t be trusted. Even most leading tycoons—notably the richest of all, Li Kashing, Asia’s wealthiest man—have had their doubts, favoring the perhaps more pliable Henry Tang in the recent vote.

For various reasons, CY Leung’s term is off to a rocky start. The Legislative Council (Legco) blocked his plan to create new senior-government positions that he said would let top officials spend more time on long-term planning and less on routine business. A Legco majority refused to fund these jobs and said he should instead outline more precise policies first. Meantime, as with his defeated opponent Henry Tang, investigators found unlicensed additions to his costly home in the rich Peak District. Apparently, most were in place when CY Leung bought the house ten years ago, and none seem to be major infractions. But these earned him renewed criticism because, as a surveyor, he should have known how to obey real-estate laws. And this week, Leung’s newly appointed development minister resigned after his arrest by the anticorruption commission for pocketing illegal housing-allowance payments while holding a previous government post.

The Accountability Gap

Some upcoming benchmarks will give more definitive insights. Just who wins in the September 9 legislative election—where for the first time most seats (forty of seventy) will be filled by popular vote—should indicate Leung’s degree of general support. How quickly he devises credible antipoverty measures is another. What he does about low-cost housing, despite possible opposition from property tycoons, also will test his populist line. That would require Leung to erode the unspoken alliance of mainland communists and Hong Kong capitalists that has shaped broad policies since 1997; surprisingly, President Hu seemed to suggest during his Hong Kong visit that such change is needed.

Beyond that is the issue of full local democracy, long promised but not yet delivered. The current targets—authorized by Beijing but not guaranteed—are for the next chief-executive election in 2017 to be by universal suffrage, with legislative voting to follow in 2020 (but not for the next ballot in 2016). So far Beijing has stalled and even reneged on a plan that would have introduced universal suffrage five years ago. The basic problem is that the mainland communists are afraid to risk loss of control, with Hong Kong’s freer ways undermining their authority across the border.

This leaves Hong Kong’s current system too often dysfunctional, with a largely powerless legislature continually sniping at an administration short on accountability and transparency. Many analysts believe this gap accounts for inadequate programs that often fall short of their goals and breed dissatisfaction. They want a system based on popularly elected executive and legislative leaders who share responsibility, contending that would bring better results and more social stability.