Chris Yeung: Stay or Go, the CE under fire

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CY Leung’s continued tenure as CE is under fire. Daily blows to his reign may fail given the underlying concerns of Beijing. 2017 is another matter.

Chief Executive Mr Leung Chun-ying broke silence on the Occupy Central movement on October 12 as the massive civil disobedience movement entered its 16th day. Asked if he had considered stepping down at a TVB news programme, he gave a flat out “No.” He stated that even if he tendered his resignation, that would not help solve the problem. On the same day, the head of the central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, Mr Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明), was quoted saying Beijing would continue to back Leung unswervingly. Speaking on ATV’s Newsline programme on October 19, Leung sidestepped a question about whether he would seek re-election in 2017. No political aspirant, he said, would declare their election plan three years before the poll is scheduled to be held.

Leave: Tear gas
Calls for the resignation of Leung surfaced again in the wake of the police firing of 87 canisters of tear gas to break up the crowd at Admiralty on September 28. It came hours after the Occupy leaders declared an earlier-than-planned launch of the blockade action. The Hong Kong Federation of Students, which spearheaded the protest, had set out his resignation as one of their four demands to the government at the early stage of Occupy Central, which has shown no sign of an early end this week. In a change of tactics, the student group later reset their focus on universal suffrage in their demand for talks with the Government.
Former HSBC chairman David Eldon was hardly the only one making a guess that the revelations might lead to pressure for Leung to stand down.

Leave: Corruption
But soon after calls for Leung’s early exit quieted down, revelations about him pocketing HK$50 million in a deal with Australian engineering firm UGL before and after he was sworn into office on July 1, 2012 have caused more than a stir. The deal was made two days before Leung resigned from insolvent property firm DTZ, of which he was a director, and completion of the takeover. It stipulated the money would be paid in two instalments in 2012 and 2013. UGL and Leung said it was to prevent him from forming or joining a rival firm within two years.

The revelation has raised fresh doubts about his credibility. As if it is not controversial enough, the fact the story was a piece of investigative work led by an Australian journalist formerly based in Beijing with good connections with the officialdom has fuelled speculation about the political ramifications of the leak. Former HSBC chairman David Eldon was hardly the only one making a guess that the revelations might lead to pressure for Leung to stand down.

In his blog on October 9, Eldon wrote: “President Xi Jinping has made very clear his abhorrence of corruption, and if there is the slightest unpleasant smell about this, what better way than to remove an unpopular official? The departure will not have been the result of student pressure … and should see the temporary installation of an altogether more popular person in the shape of Carrie Lam,” he said.

Don’t leave: No weakness
Obsessed with fears about a so-called Hong Kong-style colour revolution, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has hardened their stance on the Occupy, which was unhelpfully dubbed by Western media as an “Umbrella Revolution.” The show of defiance against Beijing’s political reform guidelines, and the leadership of Leung by the protesters, have been deemed by the leadership under Xi as an affront against their authority.
A well-placed source in the Leung team said: “His (Leung’s) deal with UGL smells bad. He should have at least negotiated for a void of the deal after he was elected. But unless there are more revelations, he will be safe. He will be able to complete his term. Pressure for Leung to step down is being seen as a challenge against Xi’s rule.”
Pragmatic-minded party leaders may have to seriously re-examine the capability and capacity of Leung in running the city.

In view of the high stakes involved, it looks almost certain Leung’s job is safe, at least for now. The possibility of him being axed before his five-year term ends in 2017, however, cannot be ruled out.

Come back: A second term?
There is no doubt Leung is eagerly keen to seek re-election. If, a big if judging from the present situation, the 2017 chief executive race will be decided by a “one person, one vote” system, he will be even more tempted to join the fray. If he succeeds, he will become the first chief executive with a popular elected mandate. Furthermore, he will be given five more years to complete his policy programme. Rumour has it his core supporters have quietly geared up for his re-election campaign.

But by the time the dust of the Occupy is settled, pragmatic-minded party leaders may have to seriously re-examine the capability and capacity of Leung in running the city in his remaining term – and for his second term.
Forget about the Communist Party leaders’ rhetoric that they are confident of the capability of the Leung administration in handling the political uproar. Informed sources said key mainland officials in charge of Hong Kong have stayed in Shenzhen in the last few weeks watching live broadcasts of the protest. A New York Times report published on October 17 said Beijing is closely monitoring the situation in Hong Kong and directing the government’s response from behind the scenes.

Stay: No progress
Beijing’s hands-on approach on the political reform row and the Occupy movement should not come as a surprise in view of its verdict that they represent a challenge to their authority. Also importantly, the capability of Leung in governing the city is increasingly in doubt. Leung and his close allies may blame the hostile pan-democrats for pulling at his legs to stop him from getting things done. They range from blocking the setting up of a new bureau in charge of innovation and technology to filibustering a package of waste management measures. Now that the pan-democrat legislators have declared a “non-cooperation movement” in the new legislative year, the Leung administration is facing an uphill battle for the blessing of lawmakers in implementing his policy programme in his remaining term.

Outside the Legislative Council, the growth of civil disobedience sentiments as shown in the weeks-long blockade of some main streets in busy districts looks certain to become a major source of unrest in the society. The populace will become more polarized under the reign of Leung unless he changes his friend-foe approach in governance, which has worsened the social, political divide.
Speaking to a delegation of the city’s community leaders in Beijing last month, National People’s Congress chairman Mr Zhang Dejiang has praised Leung, saying he dares to get things done. Dismissing calls for Leung to resign, the head of the quasi-official National Hong Kong and Macau Institute Mr Chen Zuoer has described Leung as a “hard-boned” person, akin to ‘hard-nosed’ in English – a man who will not be turned.

Divider for war, healer for peace
Re-wind to 2011 when Leung emerged as a dark horse seeking to challenge former Chief Secretary Mr Henry Tang Ying-yen, who was then widely rumored to be Beijing’s chosen successor to Mr Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Tang was dubbed the pick in times of peace, and Leung the choice in times of war. Tang, a moderate, easygoing leader, was seen as the right person to lead the society when in a state of harmony. But when the society is a state of restlessness, Leung’s hardball tactics and strong personality would help maintain order and stability.

The question of whether the 2012 chief executive race was a case of Leung winning or Tang losing the top post is now academic. The reality is that the deep-seated contradictions between the mainland and the SAR and within the Hong Kong society imploded on September 28.
It may not be fair to lay the blame squarely on Leung for the growing schism. But the pan-democrats aside, some pro-establishment figures said Leung’s combative style has worsened the split of the society. They fear the longer Leung in power the community risks further divide. It may not be music to the ears of Beijing. But they will have to assess Leung’s role as soon as they attempt to heal the wounds of a society torn apart by the Occupy Central movement.

Chris Yeung is a respected senior veteran journalist and editor in Hong Kong. His storied career includes having served as the Editor-at-Large at the South China Morning Post and more recently as the Deputy Chief Editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.