Hong Kong Chief Faces New Challenge as Foes Demand He Step Down

HK Chief Faces New Challenge as Foes Demand He Step Down
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying pauses in a legislative council meeting in Hong Kong on Oct. 17, 2012. The opposition threats -- which Leung’s backers in the legislature have the numbers to block -- may damage his already low popularity and slow efforts to control pollution. Photographer: Vincent Yu/AP Photo

New demands from Hong Kong’s opposition that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying resign may hinder government efforts to tackle everything from pollution to slowing economic growth to near-record property prices.

A group of opposition lawmakers demanded yesterday that Leung resign and threatened to push ahead with impeachment hearings for his handling of a controversy over illegal renovations at his two homes in the city. Leung faced the calls while on a three-day visit to Beijing, where he got the backing of Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping.

The opposition threats -- which Leung’s backers in the legislature have the numbers to block -- may damage his already low popularity and slow efforts to control pollution, which contributes to 3,000 premature deaths a year in the city, and tame property prices that have made Hong Kong the world’s most expensive place to buy an apartment.

“No one will want to see the Hong Kong government really get into a chaotic situation as this will bring no good to people in the city,” Linda Li, a political science professor at City University of Hong Kong, said in a phone interview today. “If this political tension continues, the government may not be able to do its job well.”

Leung presides over an economy estimated to see growth of 1.2 percent, its weakest annual expansion since the global financial crisis. Housing prices surged 23 percent in the year to October, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority said Dec. 19.

Resignation Demands

As it looks to spur growth, the government also faces worsening air quality that’s made Hong Kong the world’s most polluted financial center. The city plans to ban high-polluting vehicles and offer subsidies to replace others as it seeks to limit smog, Christine Loh, undersecretary for the environment, said in an interview this week.

Leung’s ability to focus on those problems may depend on the strength of the opposition he faces. Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and its allies will send a letter to Leung’s office demanding his resignation, party chairwoman Emily Lau said yesterday. If Leung refuses to resign, the lawmakers will submit a motion saying he violated the law for lying in the legislature over the construction, according to the text of the motion obtained from the Civic Party.

Any impeachment motion would face resistance in the legislature, where Leung’s opponents hold about a third of seats. Impeachment would require a two-thirds majority.

The unauthorized building additions included a trellis, a gate that provided access to a road and a cover over a parking space. Leung, a former property surveyor, said in a statement in November said he was negligent for not seeking approval for the renovations. The opposition argues that his credibility has been damaged even if the works weren’t extensive.

Leadership Race

Leung’s main opponent in the Hong Kong leadership race earlier this year, Henry Tang, saw his candidacy undone after admitting that he knew that his wife had built a basement with a wine cellar and movie theater without government approval.

“It’s plainly an integrity issue -- people think he is lying,” said Joseph Wong, a visiting professor at City University of Hong Kong who served under the two Hong Kong chief executives before Leung. “Why is lying such a serious problem? Because he used the issue of lying about illegal structures to criticize and discredit his opponent Henry Tang.”

Leung has a popularity rating of 49.2, according to a poll from the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Program. The poll, which sampled 1006 people and was conducted from Dec. 1 to Dec. 4, asked respondents to him on a scale of 1 to 100.

Premier Wen Jiabao told Leung today that the Hong Kong government must pay special attention to and resolve issues over employment, housing, poverty, environment and aging.

Downward Pressure

There is great downward pressure on the economy as the international financial crisis isn’t over yet, Wen said.

Leung and Xi didn’t discuss a controversy about illegal renovations made at Leung’s homes, he said at the briefing. Xi told him the central government would “continue to firmly support your governance in adherence to the law,” according to footage from Cable TV.

“I will take suggestions from the legislature and the society about my work seriously,” Leung said at a press briefing yesterday. “I will focus on doing my job well. I will pragmatically work with the people of Hong Kong.”

Below Standards

A lawmaker with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, Ip Kwok-him, said the allegations against Leung didn’t meet the standard for impeachment, the South China Morning Post reported today. Leung survived a no-confidence motion Dec. 12 over his handling of the controversy over the structures.

The day Leung took over in July, the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, 112,000 people took to the streets to call for higher minimum wages, and protest against income disparity and human rights abuses in China. Street protests against a proposed anti-subversion law triggered the 2005 resignation of Tung Chee-hwa, the city’s first chief executive.

— With assistance by Stephanie Tong, and Simon Lee

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