October 12, 2012 00:00 By Li Xueying The Straits Times
As Hong Kong citizens reeled in the wake of the deadly ferry collision earlier this month, Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying stepped forward to face the cameras. In his calm baritone voice, he stressed he was in control, coordinating rescue efforts and prov
But what followed raised eyebrows. Leung moved aside to make way for someone else.
Going against protocol, the Hong Kong leader listened as Li Gang, deputy head of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, spoke at length, offering his condolences and announcing that Guangdong would dispatch barges to help in the rescue.
Li’s gesture – the liaison office’s head Peng Qinghua later said it was only natural for the central government to express concern – enraged the Hong Kong public, who perceived it as yet another attempt by Beijing to interfere in the city’s affairs.
The episode encapsulates key problems facing Leung as he marked his 100th day in office with his popularity at a low.
There is a growing visceral dislike among Hong Kongers of their Beijing overlords. Meanwhile, their leader appears tin-eared at times to ground sentiments, leading to missteps such as that of Monday before last which
deepened the distrust of many Hong Kongers, who see him representing Beijing’s interests rather than theirs.
Leung never got the 100-day honeymoon that new political leaders are supposed to enjoy.
On July 1, he took office amid a massive demonstration. Since then, it has been a non-stop parade of crises: illegal structures at his home, his development secretary nabbed for a rent ruse, student protesters forcing the government to do a U-turn on national education, mainland parallel traders snapping up goods at Sheung Shui, and ire over a plan to develop three new towns in the North East New Territories.
Political scientist Michael DeGolyer of the Baptist University observes: “He entered a landscape with a number of landmines.”
As Leung lurches from one to another, trying to contain the fallout, the impression is that he is grabbing at ad hoc solutions.
Lingnan University sociologist Alfred Chan, who got to know Leung when the latter was a council chairman at the university before 2008 and calls him “a sincere man”, said: “It seems like he just doesn’t have time to think things through.”
Leung inherited a host of problems from his predecessor Donald Tsang. One challenge is the influx of mainland visitors which hit 28 million last year. While they help boost the economy, Hong Kongers baulk at soaring property prices, sold-out milk powder, crowded hospitals and “uncivilised behaviour”.
Meanwhile, said DeGolyer, enterprising Hong Kongers who might have wanted to cash in on the trend are trapped in what he calls “a cartelised economy”, in which property tycoons keep rents high, and control supermarket chains and their suppliers.
Another challenge is that Hong Kongers have begun to chafe at the delay of universal suffrage. Meanwhile, a culture has developed within the government where “we second-guess what Beijing wants and we try to please it”, said Chan, citing as an example what happened over the ferry disaster.
Leung entered office under a cloud of suspicion, with local media tagging him as an underground Chinese Communist Party member, which he denies. However, he has remained silent on sensitive issues such as the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, which resonates strongly with many Hong Kongers.
Said Chan: “He should have given his opinion on this; even some Chinese leaders have said Tiananmen was ‘unfortunate’.”
Analysts also believe more could have been done to explain and debate important policies.
Regarding the controversy over national education, said Chan, there was little planning and explanation of why it might benefit students before the policy was jettisoned. On Monday, Leung said he would shelve the guidelines.
Analysts also point to the lack of a “proper population policy for the next 20 or 50 years”.
“Then the solution becomes clearer – we need those mainland babies but we need to build ahead, with enough hospitals, housing, schools,” Chan said.
Going forward, the worry is that without the trust of his people, Leung would have “little choice but to go populist”, as DeGolyer puts it, reaching for solutions that pacify the masses.
So far, he has stopped mainland mothers from giving birth in local hospitals and introduced a locals-only scheme for private homes. But with the economy set to slow, Leung will have to temper such moves knowing full well that much of the local economy is propped up by mainland visitors and investors.