HK chief hobbled by an intractable and virtually invisible persona

HK chief hobbled by an intractable and virtually invisible persona
A poster in Hong Kong beckoning Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying to make an appearance. Mr Leung’s nickname, “689”, refers to the number of votes he got from the 1,200-strong election committee when he ran for Hong Kong’s top job in 2012.

He is the man who should have been in the spotlight for steering Hong Kong through its biggest political crisis since the 1997 handover - but who isn't, at least not for the right reasons.

Over the past two weeks, Hong Kong's leader made a total of three public appearances before the media.

The rest of the time, Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying stayed well away from the public eye and cloistered within his official residence, according to reports, from which he issued four televised messages while working to manage the situation. It was only yesterday that he finally emerged to do a lengthy interview with local broadcaster TVB.

Even the crucial talks with the protesters last week that were called off were to have been helmed by his Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, after the protesters said they wanted to talk to her and not him.

The situation reflects Mr Leung's predicament in Hong Kong where he does not have the support of over half of its residents - and is intensely distrusted by the pro-democracy camp.

His ratings hover in the 40s, with the latest poll, conducted by the University of Hong Kong last month before the protest movement, showing a support rate of 43.2 per cent. This is likely to have worsened following criticism of the handling of the crisis by the police - and the latest scandal to hit Mr Leung.

Australian media revealed last week that he had pocketed HK$50 million (S$8.2 million) in secret fees from an Australian company; his office has denied any wrong-doing. A formal complaint has been lodged with the anti-corruption agency.

It did not begin like this.

Mr Leung came to power on a relative high in 2012 when he defeated his rival Henry Tang, who had been the favourite to win in a vote by an election committee.

While Mr Tang, a former chief secretary, was backed by Hong Kong's establishment, in particular the tycoons, Mr Leung brandished his outsider credentials as a police officer's son who made good. He would, he vowed, serve the people, helping them in their livelihood issues such as poverty and housing.

Such promises, along with salacious revelations of Mr Tang's illegal basement, helped persuade Beijing to ask election committee members to vote for Mr Leung instead.

A total of 689 of 1,200 in the small circle did, resulting in the unflattering nickname "689" - which has stuck since, along with another, "Wolf", to describe his purportedly cunning ways.

Also dogging him are persistent rumours that he was an underground member of the Chinese Communist Party, something he has always denied.

But what has been clear is that in grappling with a tough role that requires him to serve two different masters, Beijing and the Hong Kong people, the 60-year-old is widely perceived as often doing the bidding of the former with little consideration for the latter.

Such an accusation is not entirely fair when it comes to assessing Mr Leung's grassroots policies. In the past two years, he has been more pro-active than his predecessors in trying to tackle bread-and-butter issues.

He got Beijing's go-ahead to roll back rules allowing Chinese mothers to give birth in Hong Kong, while limiting to two cans of baby formula that could be taken out of the city after a shortage was caused by Chinese buying it up, infuriating even Chinese officials in charge of Hong Kong.

His record on other, fundamental, issues is more mixed. The former property surveyor has tried to solve the city's dire housing problem, though achievements, if any, have fallen far short of expectations. Home prices actually soared 22 per cent in the past two years since July 1, 2012.

Under his watch, ties between the executive and legislature sank to their lowest, with governance paralysis par for the course. While both sides, including grandstanding pan-democrat lawmakers, are to blame, Mr Leung has been faulted with lacking the political skills to break the deadlock.

But the most damning, to his detractors, is how Hong Kong's values, freedom and democratisation efforts are being undermined. Mr Leung has been accused of sitting on business interests to yank advertisements from pro-democracy media. The police have engaged in ever-more hardline tactics with the protesters.

On Hong Kong's historic constitutional reform process, he has made it known he hopes to successfully complete it.

But a skewed public consultation report of his government and recent developments - including Beijing's Aug 31 hardline rules on the Chief Executive election that helped galvanise the ongoing protests - are raising questions about the accuracy to which his government reflects Hong Kongers' situation and views to Beijing.

Offering further fodder to critics eager to depict a leader who is out of touch, one of his daughters Chai Yan, 22, recently thanked "Hong Kong taxpayers" on Facebook for funding her wardrobe.

She is one of Mr Leung's three children with lawyer Regina.

For now, though, amid all his troubles, the boy who grew up in a communal house with other police families is putting up a stubborn front, his smile fixed in place in the face of the protests and calls for his resignation.

That is, if he is seen at all.

This article was first published on Oct 13, 2014.
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