15 September 2019
Is Leung Chun-ying getting his ducks in a row in an attempt to win a second term -- or merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?  Photo: Reuters
Is Leung Chun-ying getting his ducks in a row in an attempt to win a second term -- or merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Photo: Reuters

Leung kicks off his re-election campaign by sacking 2 ministers

It seems that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying may be losing support from his allies in Hong Kong and Beijing.

That would explain why he arranged for a cabinet reshuffle in an attempt to protect his job as Hong Kong’s leader in his remaining two years in office.

The sudden reshuffle came after Leung failed to get the government’s electoral reform package passed, a task that Beijing made clear was a major priority.

By making a point of shaking hands with Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah recently, President Xi Jinping sparked rumours that Leung might soon be fired.

To protect himself, Leung had no choice but to remove two cabinet members, making them take the fall for failing to implement his policies.

There is a hint in the official transcript of Leung’s announcement published on the Hong Kong government website Tuesday.

He said: “The State Council, on my nomination and recommendation, today approved the appointment of Mr. Lau Kong-wah as the Secretary for Home Affairs and Mr. Clement Cheung Wan-ching as the Secretary for the Civil Service, as well as the removal of Mr. Tsang Tak-sing and Mr. Paul Tang Kwok-wai from their principal official posts …”

The key word is “removal”. [Editor’s note: In mainland China, “to remove (免去) someone from a post” is widely used in official government statements, no matter whether an official is sacked or resigns. The Hong Kong government website used “replace” in its English-language news release.] 

In a separate statement later, Tsang merely said, “Now I am glad to retire.”

And Tang said his resignation was due to “unforeseeable family circumstances”.

Both statements by the outgoing officials clearly indicated they might not be quitting voluntarily.

In fact, it is rather unusual for the government not to arrange for the incoming and outgoing officials to be present at a news conference to announce such a reshuffle.

By contrast, when Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s announced the same afternoon the appointment of Duncan Pescod to replace Michael Lynch as chief executive of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, both men were present and spoke after she did.

Leung, however, had a stand-up speech prepared on the reshuffle but refused to give the reasons for it, leaving everyone to guess at the story behind the scenes.

Those not familiar with recent Hong Kong political history might find it hard to understand why Leung found it necessary to make the changes at a time when the government is busy dealing with livelihood issues such as lead-contaminated water in housing estates, as well as preparing for the upcoming district council elections in November.

But an examination of the history of Leung’s relationships with Tsang and Tang sheds light on the reasons for the ouster of the two ministers.

Political observers have noticed that while Tsang and Leung have been in the pro-Beijing camp for decades, Tsang, a former chief editor of a pro-Beijing newspaper, earned much more respect than Leung for his pro-Beijing credentials.

That may have been behind the not-so-friendly partnership between Tsang and Leung in the cabinet.

One example of that is Tsang’s refusal to scale down the development of the sports facilities at the Kai Tak Development to facilitate Leung’s ambition to build new homes.

Last month, most of the pro-Beijing lawmakers walked out from the Legislative Council and failed to cast their votes in support of the electoral reform package.

Some Beijing loyalists pointed the finger at Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, Legco’s president and elder brother of Tsang Tak-sing, for not handling the walkout well.

There is also speculation that Leung was unhappy with the younger Tsang for inadequately reining in the young people of Hong Kong (Tsang’s bureau has responsibility for youth affairs), leading to the disruptive Occupy campaign last year.

Is it any wonder that Leung is glad to part ways with Tsang — and perhaps the feeling is mutual?

As regards Tang, the chief executive would also have been unhappy with his perceived lack of cooperation.

To make it easier to implement his policies, Leung has tried to win the support from Hong Kong’s 180,000 civil servants by offering them incentives such as substantial pay raises.

But Tang refused to raise their salaries beyond the government’s established guidelines.

Beijing has also expressed its concern about civil servants lacking a patriotic mindset, as some of them were seen supporting the Occupy campaign.

The appointment of Cheung could herald a brainwashing campaign to achieve Beijing’s goal of getting civil servants to wholeheartedly embrace Communist Party rule.

But are these the real reasons for the reshuffle?

Beijing appears to have given Leung another opportunity to prove himself, by allowing him to complete his first five-year term, even though many speculate he may not win Beijing’s blessing for a second term.

Lau may have been appointed to head the Home Affairs Bureau to help the government implement more livelihood policies so that Leung can win the support of the grass roots.

Still, Leung, with his new cabinet, needs to show by his performance in the remainder of his term that he is the best person to rule Hong Kong.

Otherwise, he will have no chance for a second term.

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EJ Insight writer