Beijing Loses Patience with Hong Kong’s Leung

New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key surprisingly quit last week while he was ahead. Hong Kong’s Chief executive CY Leung has surprisingly quit as well, but he was hardly a success. His Beijing bosses evidently decided that he was too much of a liability and the political cost of pushing to win a second term would be too high.

So Leung has taken the familiar route that he was stepping aside to save his family the pressures of an election campaign he might lose, and Beijing will doubtless reward him for his loyalty by giving him a senior mainland position. Leung is the third chief executive since the city was handed back to China in 1997 to depart in a funk of unpopularity. Since all three were chosen with China looking over Hong Kong’s shoulder that is hardly a vote of confidence in Beijing’s ability to pick the territory’s leaders.

The problem remains, however, that Leung’s poor standing among both the public and business community was due as much to his following Beijing’s instructions as to the character and missteps of the man himself.

Leung’s departure, predicted in Asia Sentinel on Oct. 8, will for now remove some of the anti-government steam that has built up over the past two and a half years, as evidenced by the 2014 Umbrella movement and the September elections to the Legislative Council, where pro-democracy candidates increased their share of directly elected seats.

The puzzle for Hong Kong now is the direction in which the Beijing-aligned hard-core pro-government camp will move.

The first result of the Leung decision has been to propel Carrie Lam, Chief Secretary for Administration, and hence No. 2 in the government, from declining to run to being a probable candidate in the March selection process. Lam is a lifetime civil service who was once viewed as the “good cop” in the Leung administration – she spoke often but softly.

After Leung’s announcement, Lam, who has said she wished to retire after 37 years in government, walked that back. “I know saying I will reconsider today will spark criticism that I take back my promise, or that my previous statement was a case of retreat for the sake of advancing – but I am afraid the problems in front of me are not about my personal reputation, but Hong Kong’s interests as a whole,” she said.

However, Lam is now identified with Leung’s hard-line policies. Being a bureaucrat, she also carries the baggage of sticking to old formulas and catering to entrenched business interests. Leung had actually tried, but largely failed, to shift at least some policies.

The other entrenched bureaucrat likely to become a candidate is financial secretary John Tsang. His shaggy appearance, easy manner and apparent sympathy for some local aspirations might give him an advantage with the public. But the public does not decide – just a 1,200-strong electorate mostly of establishment figures. His seven years as financial secretary have shown him to be cautious and conservative while throwing some money in the direction of what is popular. Innovation or toughness in the face of vested interests is not his strong point.

The most obviously pro-Beijing probable candidate is bureaucrat-turned-politician Regina Ip. She was forced out of government for her crude attempts more than a decade ago to push an unpopular law on sedition. She is popular in some quarters for being outspoken and showing a degree of independence, and Beijing likes her hard-line views but may feel she is too volatile for the top job. Being a woman does not help with a largely male electorate.

The only government critic to have publicly joined the race so far is a 70-year-old retired judge Woo Kwok-hing. He is viewed as honest and amiable and would do well in a popular election. But he lacks support among establishment figures and is insufficiently trusted by Beijing to stand a realistic chance. His British-style legal background and approach is not appreciated by those looking to make Hong Kong focus on One Country not Two Systems. Leung’s departure will also now throw anti-government votes to whichever of the pro-government candidates seems least objectionable.

Additional candidates may yet appear and Leung’s departure has changed the outlook – but not by very much. The fundamental divide between the aspirations of Hong Kong’s 7 million suspicious citizens and the demands of Beijing cannot be bridged simply by a change of chief executive.