Rumors have been flying again that Leung Chun-ying will soon be removed from office as chief executive.
What has been fueling the speculation is “Xi’s handshake”: President Xi Jinping approached Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah and shook hands with him before a signing ceremony of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank at the end of last month.
[Editor’s note: A lot can be read into the handshake given the precedents.
[In January 1996, then president Jiang Zemin hailed Tung Chee-hwa during a state function and shook hands with him. The following year, Tung took office as Hong Kong’s first chief executive.
[Hu Jintao, Jiang’s successor, engaged in a high-profile, 11-second handshake with Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in May 2005 after Tung resigned. Before long, Tsang replaced Tung.]
The logic behind these rumors is closely connected to the Legislative Council election next fall, as many see the highly unpopular Leung as a “negative asset” to the government and the pro-establishment bloc.
The question whether Leung will stay on can only be answered against a broader backdrop, as his fate is determined not just by the dynamics of local politics.
Each chief executive in different times is assigned different pivotal tasks.
The progress toward the goal and whether he can accomplish it to Beijing’s satisfaction determine the path of his political career.
Tung was mandated to ensure a smooth handover in which the newborn special administrative region would take root and Hongkongers wouldn’t oppose the authorities.
But he failed when more than half a million Hongkongers took to the streets on July 1, 2003, against the government’s plan to legislate the provisions in Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Beijing then handpicked Tsang, believing an obedient administrative officer could “get the job done”, as his campaign slogan promised.
Tsang was also expected to consolidate the Hong Kong government’s “ruling foundation”.
So what did Beijing want Leung to do?
The only one that can decide Leung’s fate is Xi.
But it’s still unclear if the flinty, leftist approach adopted by the Leung administration over the past three years was decreed by Xi and his aides or instigated by the rival faction in Beijing still loyal to Jiang.
It could even have been a consensus between the two groups.
One thing that we can be sure about is that the infighting between Xi and Jiang will never leave out Hong Kong: once the rift spread across the border, the city became a hot battlefield.
To princelings within the Xi camp as well as Jiang’s allies, Hong Kong, on top of its financial expertise, still vital to China’s development, remains as a vital gateway to monetize their assets, transfer wealth overseas and whitewash their shady money.
Now that the city’s authorities have succeeded in gaining a solid footing, Beijing’s homework for Leung is to eliminate Hong Kong’s own character and accelerate the integration of the two systems into one before 2047, so the promise of no change for 50 years can be “extended” and “one country, two systems” can be sustained, although in name only.
Beijing handpicked Leung for his headstrong push for integration.
As a “party member outside the Communist Party”, he is still useful — unless he chooses to show fealty to Jiang, and the former president and his Shanghai clique completely fall by the wayside.
Leung’s job is safe unless Hong Kong’s economy tumbles under his leadership or there are renewed exposés of scandals involving him that embarrass Beijing.
There are two kinds of people who want him to stay: his loyalists and his foes.
Leung’s supporters include the city’s second- to lower-tier businessmen eyeing a more prominent status, professionals who serve these secondary tycoons, fading political figures from the colonial era seeking re-emergence, as well as the bunch of “new” patriots who switched to Beijing’s side in the 1970s and ’80s.
These people, favored by the current administration, are able to divide the political spoils among themselves while Leung is at the wheel.
Advocates of nativism and secessionism also want Leung to stay, as his rabid patriotism and governance style help popularize their propositions.
Leung is their biggest campaign ambassador, as his high-profile denunciation of full autonomy or Hong Kong independence on numerous official occasions is more effective than any other means of publicity.
His resignation may still be a focus of their slogans, but in truth they wouldn’t mind if Leung is given a second term.
Few wanted Hong Kong to depart from China under Tung and Tsang.
Only Leung could ignite that level of estrangement.
There are three types of people who want Leung ousted: the mainstream business community, the middle class and old-line local leftists.
The local business community, represented by the Liberal Party, is anxious about Leung’s drive toward integration with the mainland, which involves the influx of mainland capital at the expense of local entrepreneurs.
One example is that local telecom firms had to surrender part of their spectrum when Chinese state-owned carriers entered the local market.
Members of Hong Kong’s middle class are not big fans of Leung, either.
Many of them opposed last year’s Occupy movement and miss the peaceful days under Tung and Tsang.
They are worried that social conflict may intensify further if Leung stays on.
As for local leftists, for decades they have stayed loyal to Beijing, enduring a cold shoulder from the colonial government, believing they could grab power after the handover.
But sadly, many of Beijing’s new friends, members of the elite like Leung from a business or professional background with overseas degrees, have taken the high positions, and the leftists are relegated to being stooges of the authorities.
Naturally, these people harbor a profound discontent.
In the early years after the handover, they agreed to remain low-key, as Beijing needed to win the hearts of Hongkongers.
But since integration became the top priority, they turned resentful after Beijing chose Leung, rather than someone among them with a true communist pedigree, to lead the city.
We have already seen stepped-up bickering between Leung’s loyalists and Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, patriarch of the local leftist group.
The power struggle is about grabbing control of the city’s top post.
If Leung is dragged down one day or denied a second term, then it must be the result of local leftists’ maneuvers to replace him.
From the viewpoint of the business sector and the middle class, it’s not too late for Beijing to sack Leung to deradicalize Hong Kong’s governance for the sake of stability.
But if Leung stays, localism will gain further momentum, and the perplexed pan-democratic camp will also find its path toward a more localized approach in the post-Occupy era.
Which scenario do you like?
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 13.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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