HONG KONG — On the barricades of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, he is portrayed as a wolf, or even as Dracula. Some call him Comrade Leung, for his supposed loyalty not to the people of Hong Kong but to the Communist Party in Beijing. But Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is determined not to quit.
“I will not resign, and I don’t have to resign,” he said defiantly this week, after getting repeated public assurances of support from Beijing.
But a new opinion poll released Tuesday by Hong Kong University showed a further fall in Leung’s already low approval ratings since the start of pro-democracy protests late last month.
“He has become a liability, even for Beijing,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
But while Lam argues that Leung’s days in the top job could be numbered, others contend that “the wolf” is not yet dead.
“He’s definitely part of the problem, but will he go? I don’t think so,” said Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based senior fellow for the Gatestone Institute. “Why? Simply because, who are you going to replace him with? It is not as though replacing him will solve the problem right away.”
The 60-year-old Leung is in many ways an unlikely politician, tall and trim but dry and serious — a man who admits he can’t tell jokes and is often seen as difficult to fathom.
His selling points were his professionalism and competence, his establishment credentials and his loyalty to China. A self-made man, he was elected to the chief executive’s chair two years ago not by the people, but by an exclusive 1,200-member committee stacked with tycoons and pro-Beijing figures — and then only by a narrow majority.
In a speech not long after taking office, Leung said his “primary responsibility was to safeguard the interests of Hong Kong and of the Hong Kong people in our relationship with the mainland.” But in this, observers say, Leung has singularly failed, sounding more like a spokesman for the Communist Party in Beijing than a representative of his people — especially during the current crisis.
Leung’s administration has come out strongly behind Beijing’s version of democracy in Hong Kong, where only candidates acceptable to China will be able to take part in the first direct elections for the chief executive’s post in 2017. A widespread desire for a free vote gets little acknowledgment from his office.
“The chief executive is supposed to represent the Hong Kong people to Beijing — not just to represent Beijing,” said Sebastian Veg, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China. “I do think that CY (a) hasn’t tried to do that, and (b) hasn’t told people that he tried.”
Leung’s initial response to the pro-democracy protests suggested both indifference and an inability to communicate: three stilted, scripted and prerecorded video messages urging people to return home did nothing to damp down passions. The government’s decision to pull out of talks last week only galvanized the protests further.
In this week’s poll, just 23 percent of Hong Kongers said they would vote for Leung if a free election were held today, against 61 percent who said they wouldn’t.
The son of a police sergeant, Leung, known widely by his initials CY, studied surveying and property management in Hong Kong and Britain’s Bristol Polytechnic. Stressing his humble roots, he says he worked at a Chinese takeout place three nights a week while studying at Bristol, serving “fish and chips and chop suey” to make ends meet.
But on his return to Hong Kong, Leung quickly 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 that has served as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution after the hand-over from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
“He is not a beloved man, and he never has been,” said Professor Michael DeGolyer of Hong Kong Baptist University. People have often wondered if his political rise was propelled by secret, powerful backers, DeGolyer said. “He certainly didn’t do it on the back of some sort of charismatic personality.”
During his 2012 election campaign, Leung professed a desire to tackle poverty and stand up for the working man. Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said she thought he was “quite genuine” when he started running for office, and a better choice than his main opponent, Henry Tang.
But he has not managed, critics say, to match words with deeds.
More than a decade ago, according to reports, Leung predicted at a high-level meeting that tear gas and riot police would one day have to be used against protesters in Hong Kong. He strenuously denies having said that, but last month, in any case, that’s just what happened. He has since blamed the decision to fire tear-gas cannisters into the crowd on the police commander on the scene.
In the past week, a new problem has emerged to further undermine Leung’s authority: an Australian news report that he received a secret, undeclared and untaxed payment of $6.7 million from an Australian company while serving as chief executive.
Leung says the payment dates back to services rendered before he took up Hong Kong’s top job and was neither taxable nor needed to be declared.
But legislator Mo says that an incoming chief executive is legally required to declare his or her assets on the record, and this pending payment certainly represented an asset. Hong Kong’s Directorate of Public Prosecutions has been asked by the Department of Justice to investigate the affair, while there have also been calls for Australian police to look into it.
“It is quite a scandal,” Mo said. “He has so much to explain.”
Political observers agree that the Chinese government will not force Leung out for the time being, simply because it does not want to be seen as caving in to street protests.
Some argue he might be relieved of his job at a later date, but others are not so sure.
Leung’s name is similar to the Chinese word for “wolf,” but his nickname also refers to his reputation for ruthlessness. Protesters alternately call him Dracula in a reference to his prominent eye teeth.
DeGolyer argues that Leung still has a lot to play for. He appears to be gambling that popular opinion will turn decisively against the democratic camp, if protests continue to damage Hong Kong’s economy and inconvenience ordinary people.
If that translates into reduced support for democratic candidates during 2015 district council elections and 2016 legislative council elections, Leung could yet be seen as a “genius” by the pro-Beijing camp, DeGolyer argues.
“His is a long game,” DeGolyer said. “They don’t call him ‘the wolf’ for nothing. He is not a person to underestimate.”