26 October 2016
This poster from last year's democracy protests shows the extent of popular loathing for Leung Chun-ying. Likability, more than his policy, is playing into people's perceptions of him. Photo: The Guardian
This poster from last year's democracy protests shows the extent of popular loathing for Leung Chun-ying. Likability, more than his policy, is playing into people's perceptions of him. Photo: The Guardian

Why is CY Leung loathed by so many Hong Kong people?

Opinion polls consistently show Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to be a highly unpopular leader.

Many polls show him to be even more unpopular than Tung Chee-hwa, making him the least-liked of the three chief executives since the 1997 handover.

That, in itself, is not an unusual thing.

It is common for the popularity of leaders to go up and down, depending on the policies they champion and the mood of the people at a given time. That is the nature of politics.

But there is a big difference in the case of C.Y. Leung. He is not only unpopular but is also widely loathed. That is unusual. In most cases, leaders are unpopular because of their policies but they are not hated.

Chris Patten was unpopular in Britain because he pushed through the unpopular Poll Tax.

That was partly to blame for his defeat in the 1992 parliamentary elections but the voters in his Bath constituency did not hate him, they just didn’t like his policies.

He was highly popular here as the last British governor of Hong Kong even though he lost his seat in the British elections.

The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, however, was deeply hated by Britain’s far left for her policies but admired by hard-core conservatives.

The late US President Ronald Reagan was well-liked by all sides of the political spectrum despite his conservative values.

President Barack Obama was highly popular among ordinary Americans at the start of his presidency.

He has lost a lot of that popularity but is not hated as he approaches the end of his second and final term because he failed to bring many of the changes he had promised. That is common in politics.

Tung Chee-hwa became unpopular and disliked in his second term but he was not hated.

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was highly popular when he became chief executive after Tung Chee-hwa resigned.

He became highly unpopular towards the end of his second term due to allegations of corruption but people did not hate him.

C.Y. Leung was not popular when he ran against Henry Tang Ying-yen in 2012 and was deeply disliked by some who believed he was an underground communist.

Tang Ying-yen’s popularity quickly faded, but he was not hated, when the media revealed an illegal underground basement in his luxury Kowloon Tong house.

The discovery of the illegal basement changed the public mood and C.Y. Leung’s popularity surged but soon after winning the election, C.Y. Leung’s popularity also plummeted when he was caught lying about his own illegal structures in his home on the Peak.

That unpopularity is now mixed with widespread hate.

It is an open secret that the Liberal Party’s honorary chairman James Tien Pei-chun despises C.Y Leung. Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit also makes no secret of his loathing for the chief executive.

This loathing is shared by many in the democracy camp.

When Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing and four others in her party met in August with Feng Wei, the deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, they told him C.Y. Leung was not a suitable chief executive for Hong Kong.

Liberal Party chairman Felix Chung Kwok-pan said on my TV show that C.Y. Leung should not run for another term.

Why do so many people loathe C.Y. Leung?

I often ask people this question. I ask them if they loathe him because of his policies. I have never received a clear answer.

If you look impartially at C.Y. Leung’s policies, none should cause hate among ordinary Hong Kong people. Most of his policies were implemented after listening to the voice of the people.

He has stopped mainland women from having babies here to make hospital beds available to local mothers and to prevent mainland babies from being born here so they would acquire Hong Kong residency and benefits.

He has imposed a two-tin limit on baby milk powder for outbound travelers to prevent parallel goods traders from buying all the milk powder.

He has implemented a poverty line so that more can be done for Hong Kong’s poor people.

He has imposed tough measures to cool the property market. He is pushing to sell more land so flats will become more affordable to ordinary people.

He has convinced Beijing to impose a new policy that would allow Shenzhen residents to come here only once a week instead of whenever they wanted.

This was done to ease the concern of Hong Kong people who felt the city was too overcrowded with mainland tourists.

And he said recently that he will end the positive non-intervention policy of colonial times because it is now outdated. He believes the government should intervene to solve livelihood issues instead of leaving everything to market forces.

All these populist measures should generate support rather than hate among ordinary Hong Kong people, and even among people in the democracy camp.

Only those who are adversely affected by these policies, such as property developers, the business sector, and the retail industry, should have reason to loathe C.Y. Leung.

Yet, the fact is he is not only the most unpopular of the three chief executives since the handover, he is also deeply disliked.

The only explanation for this is he is not despised because of his policies but because he is C.Y. Leung.

Even those who work with him say he is a very private person who doesn’t make friends easily.

They have told me he is a very hard worker who always makes sure he has finished all his tasks for the day, including replying to all emails from his staff, before he stops work.

But he is stiff and formal rather than easygoing and he lacks humor. He also comes across as cocky.

The best politicians are those who know how to speak the language of the people and are seen by the people as likable and honest.

Ronald Reagan was such a politician.

It is well-known that he was not a hard worker and delegated much of his work to his assistants but he knew how to connect with the people.

That made him one of America’s most popular presidents in recent times.

C.Y. Leung’s biggest problem is that he does not come across as likable and honest, and despite his populist policies to help the grassroots he has been unable to build up a large loyal following.

What’s more important in politics — a leader who is likable but lacks good policies or a leader who is disliked but has done far more than his predecessors to improve the lives of the people?

In Hong Kong’s case, and especially in the case of C.Y. Leung, it seems good policies will not win public support if the leader who introduced them is not likable.

C.Y. Leung has not made it clear whether or not he will run for another term as chief executive although he had told me in a TV show soon after taking office that he intends to run for another term because he believes he needs two terms to implement all his policies.

He has since backed away from that comment but most people believe he will run for a second term.

I don’t think Beijing has decided yet who it wants as the next chief executive but if C.Y. Leung does run, it will certainly anger people like Emily Lau Wai-hing and James Tien Pei-chun.

But why are they so adamant that he is not a suitable chief executive? What has he done during his three years in office to make him an unsuitable leader?

I am sure if you put this question to Lau Wai-hing or Tien Pei-chun, they will not be able to give you a reason other than that many Hong Kong people don’t like C.Y. Leung.

If you ask them which of the chief executive’s policies makes him unsuitable as a leader, I don’t think they can name many.

As a senior member of the business-friendly Liberal Party, Tien Pei-chun may name the extra stamp duties to cool the property market but I am sure Lau Wing-hing supports those policies.

She may name C.Y. Leung’s failure to persuade Beijing to allow so-called genuine democracy in Hong Kong but Tien Pei-chun voted in support of Beijing’s democracy framework.

The true reason for their dislike of C.Y. Leung goes beyond policies to a personal loathing of him.

I do not know why there is deep dislike of the chief executive by so many people on a personal level but it may be that people such as Leung Kah-kit and others in the democracy camp detest him because he is willing and able to fight back.

They are too used to criticizing previous leaders without being criticized in return. But C.Y. Leung is not afraid to hit back whenever he is criticized.

Neither Tung Chee-hwa nor Donald Tsang would have dared ask voters to vote out the democrats but C.Y. Leung dared to do it.

He gives an impression of having total confidence in himself and his policies whereas both his predecessors sometimes appeared to be afraid of the pan-democrats.

It is pointless to blame C.Y. Leung for not allowing so-called genuine democracy and to say that he is an unsuitable leader.

Even if the central government decides to dump him in 2017, his successor will still have to follow Beijing’s instructions on political reform.

Liaison Office director Zhang Xiaoming’s recent speech declaring that the chief executive holds a position transcending the three branches of government was not just a routine speech explaining the Basic Law but a clear signal that Beijing intends to be tougher in ruling Hong Kong after last year’s Occupy movement.

It is naive to think Zhang alone decided on making the speech, which he knew would spark a political storm. His speech was approved by officials higher up.

I believe the central government would only replace C.Y. Leung if it is willing to change the reform framework to make it more acceptable to the democrats for the 2022 chief executive election.

C.Y. Leung would not be the right leader to negotiate with the democrats on making the framework acceptable to them and to Beijing.

The democrats would prefer negotiating directly with mainland officials and a chief executive they do not loathe.

But if Beijing has no intention of softening the reform framework, then I believe it may let C.Y. Leung have another term because he knows how to be tough with the democrats.

This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.

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