Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung’s Days Numbered?

The wheels seem to be falling off the administration of Hong Kong Chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who faces re-election early next year. With the end of the summer vacation and the new Legislative Council due to meet for the first time next week, pressure on Leung not to stand again is building up.

It would be difficult for Beijing to abandon its man at this stage but a graceful withdrawal from the fray may be deemed better than a nasty showdown when the Election Committee meets in March. Although this 1,200 member group largely consists of pro-Beijing delegates chosen through narrow franchises there is enough dissatisfaction with Leung within their ranks to make it hard to unite behind him.

Instead there is a growing movement to put Financial Secretary John Tsang forward as one who is personally popular, just about acceptable to Beijing while not being seen as a threat by the business establishment. Tsang has hinted several times that he is willing to serve if called.

Leung’s problems have been as much with personality and perception. He is seen as a hard-line follower of Beijing’s line and unwilling to give ground in the face first of the Occupy protests two years ago and lately with the “independence” movement led by the young radicals who polled so well in last month’s Legislative Council elections.

Not only Leung himself but other officials and members of pro-Beijing organisation have been seen to be receiving the direction of the central government’s Liaison Office in the territory. It is not supposed to interfere is domestic Hong Kong matters but has increasingly done so.

Hardly a week goes by without Leung seeming to fail to represent Hong Kong interests. Just this week the government denied that China was behind the arrest and deportation from Thailand of newly elected independence advocate Joshua Wong only for none other than Thai junta leaders Prayuth to say that was the reason.

Leung was not personally to blame for that. Nor directly for various land scandals, the most recent involving collusion between government officials and land-owning thugs in the New Territories opposed to building public housing on illegally-held land. Leung’s promises to build more houses have always fallen short because he has never had the political guts to take on the property oligarchs.

Meanwhile Leung’s sacking of the head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption and now a libel suit against the newspaper Apple Daily suggest a concerted effort to put the lid on a dodgy-looking and tax-avoiding business deal immediately prior to becoming a candidate for chief executive in 2012.

The leaders of the movement for Tsang argue that he can help heal divisions in society that have crystallized under Leung and achieve a degree of cooperation between government and opposition figures in the legislature. He also shows tinges of sympathy for localist and youthful attitudes. Openly backing Tsang are former financial secretaries Henry Tang (defeated candidate for chief executive) and Anthony Leung, meanwhile core members of the main pro-Beijing party the DAB are keeping quiet – not exactly a sign that they still back Leung. Former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung has refused to be drawn on the issue but indicated a softer stance towards the localists was needed, that the word “independence” had varying interpretations and Beijing interference on the matter is unwelcome.

In an indication of concern not to let speculation get out of hand. Beijing-aligned elder statesman Tung Chee-hwa called an unusual meeting of the local members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, ostensibly to discuss elections to the Election Committee. Tung is a known supporter of Leung and Beijing may well yet stand by its man. However, the price of doing so has risen now since the letters ABC “anyone but CY” have attained currency among business leaders as well as the opposition.

For sure, a change at the top would improve the atmosphere in political circles and among the public. However, whether it will do much longer-term good is another matter. Back in 2005, Donald (“Bowtie”) Tsang was seen as a competent and likeable successor when Beijing forced the early retirement of the then very unpopular Tung. But the honeymoon was brief.

Like Donald Tsang (no relation), John Tsang is a lifetime civil servant. Both proved extremely conservative in their roles as Financial Secretary. John Tsang has been in the job for seven years, remarkable only for hoarding of budget surpluses and lacking the ambition for the fiscal reform that the government itself has long acknowledged it needs. Radical measures on land, the environment, inequality and tax would be popular and divert attention from the localist political agenda. But neither Tsang’s career nor his backers suggest he has vision or drive for change.

Nor is it possible to predict that in practice he would stand up to Beijing any more than Leung has done. Years of party work made Leung trusted by Beijing – a trust he failed to put to use for Hong Kong. Tsang may appear more in touch with local sentiment but he would likely be regarded, like Donald Tsang, as too much a product of colonial-era attitudes and system to be trusted to be truly “patriotic”.

Other choices are almost non-existent. Anthony Leung was once mentioned as a possibility but clearly now backs Tsang. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam is quite popular and technically senior to Tsang and makes nice speeches, but is even more a creature of the civil service. It is also unlikely that Beijing would prefer a woman – or by some in the Election Committee. That also rules out ambitious civil servant turned successful politician Regina Ip who is pro-Beijing but also probably too volatile for its taste.

An even more faithful party member, Tsang Yok-sing former head of the DAB and President of the previous Legislative Council is personally liked by many of his pro-democracy opponents and by the public. But it is not clear that almost 70 he has the ambition to become chief executive or would be tough enough to do the job well.

Some sort of election must be contrived to give a show of democracy. But it probably will not be a direct fight between Leung and Tsang. If Leung won in the Election Committee against obvious popular and mainstream sentiment, his task of governing would be even harder. One will need to stand down and, as with the election of Tung, someone else run just to make it look like a race.