BEIJING — In a surprise move, Beijing-backed Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced Friday that he would not seek a second term next year, citing family reasons.
Leung was narrowly elected in 2012 by an exclusive 1,200-member committee stacked with tycoons and pro-Beijing figures, but he is not a popular figure among Hong Kong’s broader population.
His successor will almost certainly be pro-Beijing as well but will be confronted with an increasingly restive territory chafing under China’s rule.
In his 4 1/2 years in office, Leung has presided over growing dissatisfaction with Beijing’s control over the former British colony, notably during the 2014 Occupy protests, known as the Umbrella Revolution, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to campaign for democracy. Leung staunchly backed Beijing during the protests.
“If I run, my family will suffer intolerable stress due to my electioneering,” Leung told reporters outside his government office Friday, according to Bloomberg News. “I must protect them.”
His successor will be elected by a similar committee in March.
The Chinese government called his decision to leave office a “great pity.”
“The central government fully affirmed and highly praised his work,” an unnamed representative of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. “It hopes he can carry out the rest of his term well and continue to influence Hong Kong and national development in the future.”
Political observers said that Leung has faithfully carried out Beijing’s orders in Hong Kong but that he has failed to represent the interests of the Hong Kong people fully or act as a bridge between Beijing and the territory.
“He was the perfect hatchet man for Beijing and a very divisive figure,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a political expert and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Instead of bridging the gap, he has exacerbated differences.”
Polling by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion program showed that Leung’s popularity is low and falling. A six-month average of polls showed that 20.7 percent of people would vote for him in a popular election, while 63.5 percent said they would not. His net score of minus-42.8 is the worst since he took on the role, and it is much worse than his predecessor’s score by the same point in office.
Under the “One Country, Two Systems” model agreed to at the time of the handover from British rule in 1997, Beijing promised to grant Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy.” Leung’s critics say he failed to defend that autonomy when, for example, five local men who sold books critical of the Communist Party disappeared last year. It later emerged that the men were in the custody of mainland authorities.
This year, a new controversy erupted when several candidates supporting the independence of Hong Kong were disqualified from elections to the territory’s legislative council.
When two were allowed to run and then won seats, they were subsequently thrown out on Beijing’s orders after failing to take their oath of office properly. Last week, Leung and the justice secretary filed a legal challenge against four more pro-democracy lawmakers in an attempt to disqualify them from office because they modified their oaths.
On the barricades of the pro-democracy protests, he was sometimes portrayed as a wolf — the name Leung is similar to the Chinese word for that animal, and the nickname also refers to his reputation for ruthlessness. Others called him Dracula, in reference to his prominent eyeteeth, or Comrade Leung, for his loyalty to the Communist Party.
The son of a police sergeant, Leung studied surveying and property management in Hong Kong and at the former Bristol Polytechnic in Britain. Stressing his humble roots, he said he worked at a Chinese takeout place three nights a week while studying at the British school, serving “fish and chips and chop suey” to make ends meet.
On his return to Hong Kong, Leung made his fortune in the territory’s booming property market before joining the political establishment. He played a leading role in drafting the Basic Law, which has served as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution after the handover from British rule.
His selling points were his professionalism and competence, and during his 2012 campaign, he professed a desire to tackle poverty and stand up for the common man.
But his time in office has been overshadowed by political controversy, and he lacked the charisma and popular touch to connect with large portions of the population.
Most members of the selection committee are expected vote for the person Beijing chooses. The favorite is Regina Ip, a lawmaker and former senior official who is expected to declare her candidacy soon. Political expert Lam described her as a “hard-liner” trusted by Beijing.
But whoever wins could have a tough task ahead, as Leung and both of the other chief executives since the handover have found.
Although “Leung’s divisive personality and paternalistic style were particularly irritating to democrats, the main problem is that Beijing has made it constitutionally more and more difficult for the chief executive to speak up for Hong Kong,” said Sebastian Veg, a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris and an honorary assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. “So the real question is whether anyone has the ability to reintroduce some breathing space between the chief executive and the central government and speak up for Hong Kong.”