Hong Kong Gets Chance to Heal Division as Leader Steps Aside

  • Leung decides not to seek second term as chief executive
  • Tenure marked by protests over China’s stewardship of city

Why Hong Kong’s Leader Won’t Seek Second Term

The surprise decision by Hong Kong’s top leader to not seek a second term in office opened the way for a chief executive who might bridge some differences in a city riven by tensions over perceived interference by China.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told reporters outside his offices Friday that family concerns required him to step aside when his five-year term ends in June, saying they would “suffer intolerable stress due to my electioneering.” Leung dismissed questions about whether unrest and his low popularity rating had cost him support with the Chinese government, which controls leadership elections in the former British colony.

“Everyone in Hong Kong can see that the central authorities, including the top leaders in the country, have been very supportive of my work over all these years,” he said.

Leung’s tenure has been marred by escalating protests against China’s stewardship over the Asian financial hub, which guaranteed independent courts and a free press under a “one country, two systems” framework. In recent weeks, Leung outraged democracy advocates by successfully suing to oust two elected pro-independence advocates from the city’s legislature and moving to purge four more, in a campaign supported by Beijing.

Read: Hong Kong’s struggle to cut a path from liberty to democracy

His departure clears the field for rivals who might have been reluctant to challenge the incumbent chief executive in March, when a committee of political insiders meets to select his successor.

“Beijing should support a candidate who can really unite Hong Kong and stop it from being torn apart,” said Alan Leong, a former leader of the pro-democracy Civic Party. “Hong Kong needs somebody who can restore confidence in the ‘one country, two systems’ constitutional set-up.”

Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd. and Cheung Kong Property Holdings Ltd. were among the biggest gainers on the city’s benchmark stock index in the wake of Leung’s announcement, with each advancing more than 1.8 percent. Leung, who has followed China’s calls to focus on economic issues and steer away from political issues, has made cooling Hong Kong’s property market a priority. 

Protest Risk

Fitch Ratings reaffirmed Hong Kong’s AA+ credit rating after Leung’s decision, with Sovereigns Director Andrew Fennell saying “the risk of renewed political protest remains” given the city’s unresolved social disputes. “In the near-term, the announcement may help diffuse ongoing local political tensions over the degree and style of autonomy granted to the territory,” Fennell said.

Hong Kong has been speculating for months about likely challengers with bona fides suitable to Beijing. The list has been led by Financial Secretary John Tsang, a popular official known for an affable demeanor, and Legislator Regina Ip, who more than a decade ago led a failed effort to pass a strict national security law. Ip was expected to announce her candidacy on Thursday.

Leung’s absence could encourage others, such as his chief deputy, Carrie Lam, who had said she planned to retire when the current term ended in June.

"This is a huge change, so I have to reconsider," she said on Saturday.

Former Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang, who for years reigned as the city’s most popular lawmaker, has also been mentioned. Former judge Woo Kwok-hing, 70, threw his hat into the ring in October.

Meet the candidates awaiting China’s blessing to lead Hong Kong

“It does let some air out of the pressure valve,” said Jason Y. Ng, a lawyer who wrote “Umbrellas in Bloom,” a chronicle of the mass democracy protests in 2014. “But really it depends on who’s the next ‘appointee.’ If it’s Regina Ip, it’s likely to reopen old wounds.”

Whoever wins the contest would face the same challenge of squaring Beijing’s agenda with Hong Kong’s demands for greater autonomy. The next chief executive is due to be selected by a committee of 1,200 insiders, a China-controlled process at the center of the mass Occupy rallies that paralyzed parts of the city two years ago.

The central government holds veto power over the ultimate selection. High-ranking government officials, such as Lam and John Tsang, also need approval from Beijing to resign before they run.

Family Concerns

How much Beijing’s interests factored into Leung’s decision was unclear. He has weathered several public incidents involving his family, and last year asked for space to help his daughter recover from health and emotional issues. The announcement came hours after the Apple Daily newspaper reported that Leung’s daughter had been hospitalized for a month.

China’s local Liaison Office said the government “deeply regrets” Leung’s move, citing his ability to “navigate complex situations” and stand firm on “loving the country and loving Hong Kong.” The Beijing-based Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said it hoped Leung would continue to play a role in the city’s and country’s development.

After meeting Xi Jinping last month on the sidelines of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, Peru, Leung said the Chinese president “fully endorses” his work.

Leung’s uncompromising approach to government critics, including refusing to meet with student protest leaders in 2014 and vacating the seats of pro-democracy lawmakers, has been blamed for widening social rifts. The pro-democracy opposition gained seats in legislative elections in September, with almost one-fifth of voters backing candidates who want Hong Kong to determine its own relationship with China.

His approval rating stood at 38.5 out of 100 in November, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme.

“Leung’s legacy is a polarized and divided society,” said Ivan Choy, a senior politics lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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