“Politics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
So said Canadian economist and thinker John Kenneth Galbraith. With that sentiment in mind, it’s difficult to think of public figures more polarising than Hong Kong’s incumbent Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung. However, there was seemingly a genuine and unified reaction of shock when Leung – having served as the city’s top official since 2012 – announced his decision not to seek re-election this year, after serving just one term as Hong Kong’s political leader.
“After I made the announcement I knew that I could now have more time for my family, and I felt relieved. My family supports my decision,” said Leung.
C.Y. Leung – or Leung Chun-ying, to quote his full name – was born on 12 August 1954 in what was then British Hong Kong. He was afforded a scholarship to King’s College in Hong Kong, where he attended secondary school before studying at Hong Kong Polytechnic. Upon graduating in 1974, Leung undertook further studies at Bristol Polytechnic in the UK before finishing first in his class in 1977.
Although he was undoubtedly a good student and a diligent worker, there was little at this point to suggest that Leung was destined for a future as Hong Kong’s top politician. His career began modestly with a job at real estate company Jones Lang Wootton (JLW) where he worked for five years.
“While Leung’s tenure was a mixed bag, it’s fair to say he fulfilled some of his campaign promises”
Upon leaving JLW, Leung joined the Hong Kong Basic Law Consultative Committee in 1985, his first foray into politics. Leung would later become real estate advisor for Zhu Rongji, when the latter was mayor and party chief in Shanghai from 1998 to 2003. Zhu would go on to be vice-premier and eventually fifth premier of the People’s Republic of China. It’s not difficult to imagine that this time spent in such elite political company may well have sown the seed that would blossom into Leung’s steadfast political ambition.
Officially announcing his decision to run as Hong Kong Chief Executive in 2011 – two years after hinting at the prospect – Leung was elected on 1 July 2012 after a hard-fought campaign.
After five years in the hot seat his term comes to an end later this year. In today’s fleet-footed digital age, where information travels ever-faster and attention spans grow ever-shorter, Hong Kong has already turned its rapt attention to the next election for Chief Executive.
Leung gave his final policy address recently, in which he was quoted as saying: “I don’t want to create any legacy, but I think it would be useful for everyone to actually go through the policy addresses of the past five years … and ask whether or not these are the right policies and measures that people in Hong Kong need.”
in mind we take a look back at some of these policies and measures and ask exactly what kind of reluctant legacy will C.Y. Leung leave as Chief Executive?
While most will agree that Leung’s tenure as Chief Executive was a mixed bag at best, there are those who cannot deny that he managed to fulfil some of his campaign promises successfully.
Welcomed by workers but not as well received by businesses, Leung finally announced his intention to scrap the controversial Mandatory Provident Fund offsetting mechanism during his final policy address on January 18th this year. The offsetting mechanism previously allowed employers to use money they put into workers’ retirement funds to cover their severance and long-service payments. Workers considered it an unfair policy, which has sparked controversy and protests since the policy was introduced in 2000.
To ease the transition, the government is expected to subsidise the new setup over the next 10 years – with an estimated cost of HK$1 billion for the first year alone. While this comes very near the end of his term, it is nonetheless a campaign promise fulfilled, much to the approval of the average Hong Kong worker.
Other successes that Leung has enjoyed while in office include promptly dealing with the milk powder shortage brought on by reports of tainted milk powder on the mainland in 2013. Parallel traders from the mainland made life difficult for local mothers when they bought up local stock of milk powder to bring back across the border for re-sale. Leung swiftly declared a limit of two cans per person, which alleviated the shortage and brought relief to local mothers.
Similarly, Leung also acted decisively when mainland mothers were overwhelming the supply of hospital beds in Hong Kong. Pregnant mainland mothers made their way to Hong Kong in large numbers for dual purpose: to take advantage of the city’s premium private healthcare, while hoping to secure Hong Kong residency for their child by giving birth in the city. Leung curtailed the strain being placed on local maternity wards by announcing a ban on non-local parents having babies in Hong Kong. This resulted in the number of babies born to non-local parents being cut from more than 35,000 per year to about 800 per year and freeing up much needed maternity beds for local mothers-to-be.
One of Leung’s major campaign promises was addressing Hong Kong’s housing shortage. Leung has made this a priority but has arguably had less success in this area.
At the end of 2016 the government announced it would maintain a target of adding 280,000 public flats and 180,000 private flats to the housing market within a decade. While efforts have no doubt been made in identifying potential land for re-development, the shortage of readily available land and opposition to re-zoning of existing land has considerably hampered any real progress. Despite his best efforts, Hong Kong retains the undesirable honour of being one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in – not least due to the high cost of apartment rentals.
“After I step down, I would like the new government to continue to look after the underprivileged”
Another issue high on Leung’s agenda has been attempts to address environmental pollution in the city. Again, critics will claim that more could have been done while others have praised Leung’s initiatives to force ocean-going ships to switch to cleaner fuel and efforts to replace thousands of heavily polluting vehicles. While this has undoubtedly had some impact on the city’s air quality, Leung and the government have made little headway in addressing the city’s waste disposal issues.
In terms of environmental conservation, Leung’s government was lauded for a plan to phase out the local ivory trade by 2021. However, others point to hypocrisy in the fact that no allowances have been made for Chinese white dolphins – a species that is currently in danger of extinction. Its habitat is under dire threat from infrastructure projects such as the Hong Kong–Zuhai–Macau bridge.
It would also be impossible to talk about C.Y. Leung’s tenure as Chief Executive without mentioning Occupy Central. In late September 2014, students and protestors took to the streets to rally against a decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) regarding proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. The decision was widely seen to be highly restrictive, and tantamount to the Chinese Communist Party’s pre-screening of the candidates for the leadership of Hong Kong.
What followed was 79 days of protests, where students set up camp in several of the city’s high-profile areas. On the first night of the protests, events culminated in the firing of tear gas by police on protestors on C.Y. Leung’s order. Not only was this incident harmful for Leung’s poll numbers but it also thrust Hong Kong politics firmly into the international spotlight, no doubt much to Beijing’s annoyance.
In policy terms, C.Y. Leung has himself declared that he has basically delivered on all his election promises, while his critics point to a lack of initiatives to heal the social and political divides that have marked his time in power. On the other hand, he has also been hailed for his shift of focus from pure politics to more developmental policies that address the standard of living in the city.
“After I step down, speaking as a Hong Kong person, I would like … the new government to continue to look after the underprivileged, particularly the elderly,” says Leung.
For better or worse, C.Y. Leung has left his indelible mark on our city. As with anything political, it might be some time before we can actually gauge the effectiveness of his policies. One thing is certain, though. Whoever wins this year’s election has quite a job ahead of them.
Text: Hans Schlaikier