Beijing: The surprise announcement by Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying that he will not seek a second term as chief executive has ignited political manoeuvring by those seeking to replace him next year.
Mr Leung has been Hong Kong’s most unpopular chief executive since the territory’s handover from British rule in 1997, according to local polling data.
What Beijing wanted was a steady pair of hands who could maintain economic and political stability. Instead property price inflation, low wages growth and a lacklustre economy exacerbated anger over inequality, while the spectre of Beijing’s rising influence has spawned toxic divisions and anti-mainland sentiment, and the rise of a nascent independence movement.
“He is very unpopular – the society has become very polarised under him and the situation has become almost ungovernable,” Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said.
While Mr Leung cited family reasons for his surprise decision on Friday not to stand for re-election, Hong Kong-based analysts said it was also likely he had lost political backing from the Communist Party leadership.
“I don’t think any Hong Kong person will believe that he declined to stand because of his family problems. Generally Hong Kong people believe that Beijing refused to support him and therefore he decides not to run,” said Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong, and a long-time pro-democracy advocate.
“And to a large extent Hong Kong people are very happy about it, and they certainly are a bit relieved that Beijing understands that it is extremely difficult to support a very unpopular chief executive.”
But hopes for a more conciliatory, inclusive replacement are moderated by what has been a consistently hardline approach from Beijing under President Xi Jinping.
Rather than permit a free vote to allow the Hong Kong public to determine their next leader, the Communist Party’s decision in 2014 to effectively vet chief executive candidates saw massive demonstrations cripple the city streets for months. The central government in Beijing, and Mr Leung, refused to negotiate with student protest leaders, and the demonstrations ultimately faded without any concessions from the government.
A more radical independence movement formed, which then led to two pro-independence lawmakers elected. They were subsequently disqualified from office for failing to take the oath of office properly.
The next chief executive will be selected by a committee of 1200 people, which has long been criticised as giving disproportionate powers to business elites and the pro-Beijing establishment.
The three serious frontrunners in the race are all pro-establishment candidates: Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam, legislator Regina Ip and Financial Secretary John Tsang.
“On the whole the general sentiment on the part of the pro-demorcracy legislators is that none of them are worth supporting – in any case they have to toe the Beijing line,” Joseph Cheng said. “How can we trust them to fight for the interests of Hong Kong?”
Regardless of the winner, Professor Lam says it is likely the move to pass controversial national security law Article 23 will be revived. The article will criminalise sedition and subversion as a counter-measure against nascent independence movements.
The Hong Kong government pushed for the law in 2003 but was forced to shelve it after mass street demonstrations were organised in opposition. New mass demonstrations are unlikely now given the fractured nature of the pro-democracy camp and “protest fatigue”, analysts said.
“No matter who is elected the Article 23 is the top priority so [they] have no choice but to push through it,” says Willy Lam. “But [they] might do it in a less confrontational manner [with] more consultation with pro-democracy lawmakers, intellectuals, college professors and so forth.”