Hong Kong’s Leader, Loyal to a Fault

A pro-democracy demonstrator standing on a banner depicting Leung Chun-ying during a rally outside his residence in Hong Kong this month. Credit Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A pro-democracy demonstrator standing on a banner depicting Leung Chun-ying during a rally outside his residence in Hong Kong this month. Credit Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the quiet of a recent Friday afternoon, Hong Kong’s hard-line leader, Leung Chun-ying, announced in a subdued, sometimes hesitant, voice that he would not seek a second term as chief executive. He cited the need for more time with his family: One of Mr. Leung’s daughters has long been afflicted with mental-health issues.

Within minutes, the news had inundated local media, and the political opposition — which won nearly 55 percent of the open seats in recent legislative elections — was cheering. Even a good part of the pro-government camp seemed to give a collective sigh of relief.

For a leader with persistently low approval ratings, Mr. Leung’s decision — or, more likely, the decision of his bosses in Beijing — seems to make sense. In fact, it raises many fundamental questions. Notably: Mr. Leung has long done the Chinese government’s bidding, scoring some marked successes recently, so why deny him a second term?

Simply put, Mr. Leung has fallen out of favor because he went too far. His efforts to interpret to Beijing’s advantage the “one country, two systems” principle, the crux of Hong Kong’s relations with China, have only spurred a separatist movement and alienated even some mainstream or politically neutral Hong Kongers: They now see him as too ready to shortchange the rule of the law here in order to please the Chinese government.

Mr. Leung has become too unpopular in Hong Kong to be useful to Beijing — for, yes, public opinion matters to the Chinese government, and so does preserving Hong Kong’s special freedoms, which serve China’s interests.

In the past, the election for Hong Kong’s chief executive was essentially the Chinese government’s prerogative. The city’s leader is not elected by a direct vote of the population, but selected, from a small slate of candidates vetted by Beijing, by a 1,200-member election committee comprising mostly people eager to please Beijing. Yet partly because of Mr. Leung’s unpopularity, anti-Leung and pro-democracy forces recently managed to secure enough seats on the committee to seriously influence the outcome of the upcoming election. And now Mr. Leung is exiting the race, just three months before the election, with no one else having been tipped as Beijing’s favorite.

Why? And why is Mr. Leung allowed to serve out his term, when Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s feckless and hapless first chief executive after Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, was made to resign unceremoniously midterm, after mass protests, invoking leg pain? Letting go of Mr. Tung early had allowed Donald Tsang, the chief secretary and second–ranking official in the city, to step in as acting chief executive well ahead of the next election, giving him time to become a shoo-in. The current chief secretary, Carrie Lam, apparently is being allowed no such advantage.

Since Ms. Lam is a hard-liner much in Mr. Leung’s mold, Beijing may be signaling that it thinks their approach has failed and that change is in order. Perhaps taking the hint, John Tsang, the popular finance minister and the standard-bearer of a softer political line, has just resigned, suggesting an upcoming candidacy.

Mr. Leung’s unraveling is all the more surprising because it seems to be happening when his career was at a high point. Most recently, he spearheaded an effort to disqualify two rookie legislators-elect who advocate full independence for Hong Kong. That move has paved the way for sidelining other more or less radical legislators in the opposition.

But Mr. Leung himself is seen as having set a spark to the firewood of separatism, after having laid that out, unwittingly. He has called for “fusing” the two systems of the city and the mainland (中港融合) and “unifying” Hong Kong and Shenzhen, a major city right across the border (深港同城化) — in other words, chipping away at Hong Kong’s distinctiveness. In what may have been a warning, President Xi Jinping of China last year acknowledged “new developments in Hong Kong,” but cautioned that, “one must see to it that there be no deformation, no change in shape, in ‘one country, two systems.’ ”

Still, Mr. Leung overshot. His administration tried to change school curriculums to add history and civic-education classes extolling the Chinese Communist Party. It has appointed power-hungry loyalists to run Hong Kong’s universities. It has funded militant or Communist youth league-type organizations. It has facilitated the immigration and integration of people from the mainland, which many Hong Kongers see as a form of creeping colonization. The government’s official think tank is headed by ultra-Maoists-turned-ultra-nationalists.

Many people here, including the politically neutral, object to such measures. When they don’t want more autonomy for Hong Kong, they want the “one country, two systems” principle applied as it was originally conceived in the 1980s — not Mr. Leung’s version. By going against the wishes of the majority and triggering a powerful backlash, Mr. Leung has committed, in the parlance of Chinese communism, the sin of ultra-leftism. Even his extraordinary efforts to remove the separatists from the local legislature could not redeem him and his associates in the eyes of Beijing.

When he unexpectedly attacked separatist sentiments in a speech in early 2015, Mr. Leung only popularized them: He turned what had been the chatter of small intellectual circles into a widely known ideology. Now, some 40 percent of Hong Kongers ages 15 to 24 sympathize with such views. In the September election for LegCo, Hong Kong’s 70-member legislative body, the separatists won six of the 30 seats that were open to a direct popular vote.

The leadership in China cannot abide the idea of independence for Hong Kong; Mr. Leung was correct about that. But neither does Beijing want Hong Kong to become more like China, and he failed to understand that. Hong Kong is far more useful to the Chinese government as it is today than if it became a glorified version of Shenzhen or Shanghai.

Hong Kong’s special legal status has allowed it to develop a sound regulatory framework, top-notch courts, a truly cosmopolitan professional class and a remarkably stable financial market. It remains a leading financial center, and Beijing needs the world to see China through that window. This is especially the case these days, now that Beijing’s efforts to turn the renminbi into a fully convertible international currency are stalling and the U.S. government and other Western states have refused to formally recognize China as a market economy. In the end, Mr. Leung was done in by his failure to appreciate one simple thing: China still needs Hong Kong more than Hong Kong needs it.

Yi-Zheng Lian is a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs.

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