Hong Kong's Chief Exec Under Fire

Hong Kong is mostly well organized but its increasingly chaotic politics raise questions about its government's ability to make and implement decisions based on anything more than knee-jerk responses to particular problems or demands.

Most immediately, much hangs on the content of and reaction to the first policy address on Jan. 16 by Chief Executive C.Y. Leung. In his selection campaign and subsequently, Leung has made much of his intention to tackle three of the issues which are popularly viewed as urgent: an ever-rising income gap reflected in the poverty of a large minority of the population, particularly the elderly; appalling levels of air pollution and related environmental issues; and very high property prices that have put home ownership out of reach for young families.

Education also remains a touchy subject with suspicions which cross most social divisions of more attempts to thrust "national education" and other "patriotic" political doctrines down local throats.

These problems in turn hinge in part on relations with the mainland – the influx of capital, unskilled migrants and tourists and even so-called parallel traders who clog local stations with goods traded across the border by individuals. Anti-mainland sentiment can be irrational and is offensive to Beijing. But much of it too derives from ham-fisted actions by a Hong Kong government too eager to please Beijing.

Leung has no political experience, or indeed experience in running a large organization. A new broom in government is needed and some of his ideas are sound. But the first job of a chief executive is to make the people believe that he is committed to acting in their interests.

None of the above problems is beyond being at least ameliorated by government actions even at a time when budget surpluses appear to be dwindling. But they do require political momentum to carry them through. This is where the current disarray may in time work to Leung's advantage.

The biggest single immediate problem is Leung himself. His personal reputation has been seriously damaged by doubts about his integrity. He won last year's quasi-election when the front runner, Henry Tang, was found to have a huge basement illegally constructed under his house, an issue eagerly exploited by Leung. But after the election, Leung was found to have his own illegal structure, not as big as Tang's but large enough that he could scarcely not have known about it.

Ever since, Leung has been the butt of opposition calls for him to step down, marches demanding his dismissal, motions of no-confidence and for impeachment. None of these could ever go anywhere as the official opposition is a permanent minority in the legislature and Beijing could never countenance Leung's removal so early in his tenure and so soon after being praised by its leaders.

To his integrity problem is added two other issues. Firstly, the perception that he is not his own man. As a long-time probable closet Communist party or United Front member, he is more heavily under the direct influence of the Liaison Office than his predecessors. He has done little to dispel such suspicions. Indeed, there are additional concerns that pressures on Hong Kong to integrate more closely with the mainland will be stepped up by the new Beijing leadership under Xi Jinping, who has simultaneously been trying to show himself as a man of the people while cracking down on dissent.

Leung's other problem is that he disliked by many of the traditional pro-government, business-related conservatives. Many supported Tang, who himself has now returned to the scene with an attack on Leung's integrity. Many in the business elite are worried about how far Leung will go with measures they see as populist and anti-business in order to try to regain support from the wider community.

An attempt to stabilize home price by imposing a huge tax on non-resident buyers went down badly with them, and with anyone else believing that equality of taxation was a principle of Hong Kong.

Establishment figures also worry about his reliance on Beijing. This was tartly summed up by leading Liberal party leader Selina Chow: "No chief executive can ignore the people's views just because he has authorization from above".

Opinion polls before the election always showed him to be better liked than Tang, but his standing has slumped since taking office. One attempt to retrieve it has made matters worse. January 1 saw a series of anti-government demonstrations and marches. Some of the Leung camp responded with two pro-Leung marches of their own, one organized by a Executive Councilor and leading leftist Cheng Yiu-tong which likely had prior approval from the Liaison Office. But these were poorly attended compared with the anti-government ones and some of the attendees were shown to have been paid and in one incident a TV reporter was attacked by a demonstrator.

In any case, for some government supporters to be actively encouraging more street demos not only appeared undignified led some to worry that a Communist party well-known for resorting to thuggery and bribery was thinking of tougher, informal measures against anti-government groups. Counter-demonstrations were also counter-productive in that many Hong Kong people have been appearing to tire of almost daily demonstrations of one kind or another.

But it is not just the government which has problems. The multiplicity of anti-government groups on the streets on Jan. 1 and at other times showed that the pro-democracy parties no longer lead a cohesive front criticizing the government while proposing specific policies. The main Jan. 1 march was organized by the ad hoc Civil Human Rights Front, a catch-all for groups ranging from suffrage to pension to animal and gay rights issues. Meanwhile other demonstrations linked to more specific local issues have become almost daily events.

The Democratic Party, the largest of them, remains obsessed with franchise issues and lacks coherent policies on social and economic issues. Its new leader Emily Lau is a stalwart democracy campaigner of 20 years' standing but lacking charisma and gravitas. The lawyer-dominated Civic Party is not much better. The more extreme democrats, of whom Leung Kwok-heung, known as Long Hair, is one, aim more to disrupt a system they despise than work for its gradual improvement.

Leung's best hope now is that he can both propose and begin to implement policies in key areas which reflect public concerns. That should not be difficult and would take at least some of the wind out of the sails of an opposition too disparate to be more than an irritant and too negative to be able to use its position to influence policies.

The illegal structure issue too can be expected to gradually lose its sting. So Leung can look forward to a better next than last six months. Whether he can shake off the impression that he is at heart a Beijing boy and patriotic party yes-man is an issue for the longer term.