Less than a year before the next chief executive election, Leung Chun-ying is trying to keep a low profile while a controversial political issue swirls around him.
That could be a strategy to keep things under control while he waits to be nominated for a second term.
It sounds counter-intuitive that Leung is not pushing back as vigorously as expected in a widening discussion of Hong Kong independence.
But it all makes sense after Beijing toned down its criticism of Hong Kong and left most loyalists perplexed.
In Leung’s mind, it doesn’t hurt to keep his head down and his mouth shut until there are clear instructions from his bosses in the central government.
He did let us in on his broad thinking regarding independence.
On Tuesday, he told journalists that Hong Kong does not need it to safeguard its own interests.
He said his government has “always adopted policies that give priority to Hong Kong people”.
It’s interesting that the first example he gave was the policy on baby formula which sets limits on how much mainlanders can bring back across the border (no more than two cans at a time).
The curbs on powdered milk are the best proof that much of Leung’s approach is more political calculation than real policymaking that anticipates potential problems and puts solutions in place before any crisis arises.
Leung’s administration waited until the controversy turned into widespread public anger before it finally took action.
This is the same government that has been upset by young people who jealously guard their Hong Kong identity and considers their embrace of their own uniqueness an affront to the mainland.
Remember how Leung lambasted a University of Hong Kong student publication in his policy address last year for an article about self-determination?
Now this is the same administration that is playing a different tune to young people.
In a dramatic U-turn, Leung said on Tuesday that he could understand why their interest in China is eroding.
And he largely stayed on the sidelines as his political allies joined central officials in condemning the newly launched pro-independence Hong Kong National Party.
That has not kept the idea of Hong Kong independence from the public mind but Leung obviously thinks that by not wading in, he will help stop further discussion.
Former chief secretary Anson Chan said most people do not support independence, despite Beijing’s increased meddling.
“They simply want to preserve Hong Kong’s core values,” she said, adding that it will lose its uniqueness and ability to contribute to China and the world if it is reduced to just another Chinese city.
Localist groups, the self-proclaimed champions of Hong Kong’s uniqueness and core values, are beginning to be viewed more favorably by the government.
But it was not very long ago that three of Leung’s most senior ministers — Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Financial Secretary John Tsang and Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen — warned that they were pursuing a “wrong mindset”.
A recent survey by the government’s Central Policy Unit found that 44 percent 1,005 respondents identify themselves as Hongkongers while 39.1 percent consider themselves Hongkong Chinese. Only 10.8 percent describe themselves as Chinese.
An overwhelming majority said they want Hong Kong to keep its distance from China.
Most young people are supporters of pan-democrats and just 5.3 percent identify themselves as pro-establishment.
Older Hongkongers, although not always eager to share the politics of the younger generation, agree that the line over “one country, two systems” should not be crossed and that Beijing should respect it.
The young and old could shape the Legislative Council elections in September in different ways.
Several young pro-independence political groups such as Hong Kong Indigenous and Joshua Wong’s new party are planning to field candidates.
First-time voters could boost the chances of pan-democrats while their elders and the so-called “silent majority” could tip the scales for establishment candidates.
Leung is targeting the latter to keep control of the chamber and bolster his own chances for a second five-year term.
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