24 October 2016
Beijing is worried that social divisions and conflicts in Hong Kong have become more pronounced during CY Leung's reign. Photo: Reuters
Beijing is worried that social divisions and conflicts in Hong Kong have become more pronounced during CY Leung's reign. Photo: Reuters

Is Beijing wavering in support for Leung?

After four years of steadfast support for Leung Chun-ying, Beijing appears to be wavering on backing Hong Kong’s chief executive for a new term as the time draws near to select a candidate for the territory’s leadership race next year.

Widening divisions in Hong Kong society, the formation of a pro-independence party in the city and the radicalization of a section of the young people have alarmed Beijing.

Leung is lobbying for a second term as the loyal son of the central government, having followed its orders to the letter, especially during the Occupy Central protests.

During his 2016 Work Report, he mentioned the “One Belt, One Road” policy of President Xi Jinping no less than 48 times, the most quoted single phrase in the speech.

Despite the disappearance of Lee Bo and the other booksellers in December, Leung has not criticized the central government over its handling of the case, asking only for clarification and cooperation.

The chief executive has failed to reflect widespread public alarm over the case, which was seen as the most flagrant violation of the Basic Law since 1997.

Leung is working to turn the Mongkok protests at Chinese New Year and the foundation of the Hong Kong National Party to his advantage. He is presenting himself as the strongman who can successfully handle an increasingly violent opposition.

In an interview with Cable TV news last week, Rita Fan, a member of the NPC Standing Committee, said the Mongkok unrest, calls for independence, and time-wasting tactics by pan-democrat lawmakers were increasing the chances of Leung’s re-election.

Beijing cannot fault him for his loyalty. But is he the leader they want for Hong Kong for the next five years? Do his failures outweigh his loyalty?

At the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March, Leung was treated correctly but not warmly. In Hong Kong, many pro-government figures are keeping a distance from him. Never a social man or adept networker, he is increasingly isolated.

Under his watch, the divisions have widened. In February, during the election in Shatin for the LegCo seat, Edward Leung, the candidate of the radical Local Democratic Front, received 66,000, or 15.4 percent, of the votes, putting him in the third rank.

If the ‘local’ parties receive this share of the votes in the July LegCo election, they will obtain two-three seats. Within LegCo, they are likely to behave in a more aggressive manner than radical lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, disrupting normal business even further.

An opinion survey by the Central Policy Research unit, published at the weekend, found that 44.4 percent of young people defined themselves as ‘Hong Kongers’ and only 4.2 percent as ‘Chinese’. Only 39.1 percent said that they were ‘Hongkonger and also Chinese’.

Beijing is asking if it wants five more years of this. Would it be wiser to choose a less divisive figure, someone who talks to the opponents of the government and seek to win them over, both a representative of the Hong Kong people and a servant of Beijing.

Its model for a provincial governor or party chief in the mainland is such a person — who earns local support and creates a harmonious society, at the same time as carrying out the policies of the centre.

In late March, the central government issued a notice to local officials in the mainland, warning them that they would be punished for weakness in ensuring public order or permitting mass incidents, such as large-scale protests. “Social stability” is a priority.

Waiting in the wings are many candidates for Chief Executive on the pro-government side – like John Tsang, Anthony Leung and Regina Yip.

The choice for Beijing is similar to that in Taiwan, where Tsai Ying-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, takes power on May 20.

While the economies of Taiwan and the mainland have increasingly integrated during the eight years of the Ma Ying-jeou presidency, the two societies have grown further apart.

Democracy, independent media, access to the Internet and freedom of assembly and protest have become part of the DNA of Taiwan people. In the mainland, under President Xi Jinping, civil society has been severely restricted; what freedoms there were have been further limited.

The question for Beijing is: how hard a line to take with the new President? Taiwan has only 22 diplomatic allies in the world. Most, if not all, would prefer to switch to Beijing which can offer more in terms of money, aid and projects. During the Ma presidency, Beijing chose not to set up relations with them as a favor to Ma.

In March, it established relations with Gambia, an African ally of Taiwan between 1995 and 2013. It was a warning to Tsai.

If Beijing wants to win the hearts and minds of people in Taiwan as in Hong Kong, it should change its approach. If you want a lady to marry you, you offer her roses, chocolates and expensive dinners – not a scolding and the threat of war.

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Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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