The end of CY Leung

Author: Kerry Brown, King’s College London

CY Leung, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), was always a slightly unusual occupant of the main executive position in the city.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying walks past China's President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Beijing, 11 November 2014 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

The job almost fell into his hands in 2012 when the frontrunner was felled by scandals over his private life and his wealth. Leung, a graduate of Bristol University in the UK who speaks native-level English but only passable Mandarin, had the air of a decent university lecturer or scholar. This was despite the fact that he had spent most of his professional career as a quantity surveyor.

Politics evidently didn’t come easily to him and no one could have explained to him, or his family, what was to be unleashed on them in the years after 2012 in a way that would have prepared them for the turbulence ahead.

Hong Kong politics has always been fractious and divided under the surface. Leung knows better than most the deceptive image that the city gives of unlimited wealth. In the outlying districts in the New Territories, there was plenty of poverty and disenfranchisement. To his credit, Leung always tried to do something to address this.

But the issue that he will always be associated with, and which probably curtailed his political ambitions in the end, was the attempt to introduce a modicum of democracy into the appointment of the next chief executive. The expectations of many in 2013, when consultations started in earnest, was that this would be universal suffrage.

But Beijing had different views, as did the establishment around Leung. For them, the possibility of appointing a populist local who defended Hong Kong independence and might confront Beijing was unconscionable. A halfway house was proposed in which anyone could stand, but where only a few were put through after undergoing electoral committee screening. Needless to say, for many in Hong Kong this was a betrayal.

Occupy Central and the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 put paid to the idea of Hong Kong being inhabited by unpolitical people. It showed powerfully that there were plenty, particularly the young, who did want a direct say in who governed them. For weeks they demonstrated, advertising to the world their dissatisfaction in large groups across the city.

Beijing bade its time, but in the end the instruction to Leung was clear — sort it, or perish. He sent the police in and cleared the squares and streets of protesters. Whatever credibility he had ever had in the city as an honest, neutral broker was gone. From that point on, he had to deal with a fatally divided polity. The reform proposals were voted down and shelved. In 2017, the same system will be used to elect the chief executive as was used five years before — only Leung won’t be on the list of candidates.

Hong Kong politics is a game of ferocious talk and even more ferocious attack and counterattack. Pragmatism is rare. Pro-Beijing forces clash with pro-democrats, lacking a common language, and with two totally different visions for the city. Neither side seems willing to concede any space. The latest manifestation of this was the curses produced by pro-independence candidates elected to the Legislative Council in September, who were barred from taking up their seats because of their blank refusal to swear fidelity to the People’s Republic of China.

From the very start, Leung was regarded by the pro-democrats as a lackey for Beijing. Rumours swirled around that he was a member of the Communist Party. His critics watched his reception in Beijing where he was summoned like a junior partner, sat in chairs before central leaders and lectured to. Leung himself often created problems, saying the city needed a hard rod to control it, and that democracy was no panacea.

Even a man with his patience would have found the last few years wearying. While there were some issues he could have sought a better outcome on, many others were beyond his control. Hong Kong is as susceptible to the waves of anti-globalisation passing across the planet as anywhere else, and many of its people simply want to protest because they feel the current situation offers them nothing. Nor could Leung have foreseen how muscular and categorical the leadership from Beijing would be. Xi Jinping has shown little tolerance for allowing the city more freedoms. To him and his colleagues, the `one country, two systems’, in the end, only really matters for the first two words of the phrase.

‘Two systems’ is a luxury granted to Hong Kong, and one that can be withdrawn for bad behaviour. Grappling with this quandary will be one of the challenges Leung will leave to his successor. The most one can say of Leung is that while he did not resolve any of the big issues, he didn’t implode either. He survived. Perhaps for a leader of Hong Kong, with the constant need to stand Janus-faced between Beijing and the city, that it the best one can ever do.

Kerry Brown is Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Politics at King’s College London.

A version of this article first appeared here at Asian Currents.

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30 December 2016 10:08 pm

Thanks for an interesting perspective on Leung’s tenure in Hong Kong.

From where I view and read about the news (here in the USA via the Washington Post, the BBC, and NHK Newsline) I never got the impression of Leung having much patience for, let alone any inclinations to support, the pro-democracy youth in Hong Kong.

I wonder what the issues were that he ‘could have sought a better outcome on?’

It appears to me that it is a thankless, no win kind of job. Talk about being caught between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place!’