HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying said he would not seek a second term, citing family reasons, after a tenure marked by mass pro-democracy protests and the rise of a more confrontational independence movement.
"We express our deep regret that Leung has decided to not pursue another term due to family reasons, and we respect his decision," a Chinese mainland spokesperson said after Leung's announcement.
"If I run my family will suffer intolerable stress due to my electioneering," Leung told reporters outside his government office on Friday (Dec 9). "I must protect them."
Leung's daughter, Leung Chai Yan, has been hospitalised for about a month, the Apple Daily newspaper reported earlier Friday, citing unidentified people. The chief executive declined to comment on whether that contributed to his decision.
While Leung has received support from Communist Party leaders, he has struggled with job approval and saw the pro-democracy opposition gain seats in legislative elections on Sept 4, with almost one-fifth of voters backing candidates who want Hong Kong to determine its own relationship with China.
In recent weeks he moved to rid the Legislative Council of opposition lawmakers who advocate independence or self-determination in a campaign his detractors say was designed to curry favour with his masters in Beijing.
"The central government is very supportive of my work," Leung said on Friday.
The next chief executive is due to be selected in March by a committee of 1,200 insiders, a China-controlled process at the centre of the student-led Occupy rallies two years ago.
Leung's decision leaves open the path for other possible pro-establishment candidates, including Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Financial Secretary John Tsang and former Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang.
Legislator Regina Ip was expected to announce her candidacy next week, according to South China Morning Post and other media. Former judge Woo Kwok Hing, 70, threw his hat into the ring in October.
Whoever wins the contest will face the same challenge of squaring Beijing's agenda with Hong Kong's demands for greater autonomy. Not only have pro-government candidates won every contest since Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, the central government in Beijing holds veto power over the ultimate selection.
Sun Hung Kai Properties and Cheung Kong Property were the biggest gainers on the city's benchmark stock index in the wake of Leung's announcement, with the two companies advancing at least 1.7 per cent. Leung had made cooling Hong Kong's pricey property market a key priority.
Since Leung was elected with 689 votes in 2012, Hong Kong has seen a series of political clashes over whether China is preserving the "high degree of autonomy" it promised before regaining sovereignty.
The disappearance last year of five local men who sold books critical of the ruling Communist Party drew international protests after they were revealed to be in the custody of mainland Chinese authorities.
"Leung's legacy is a polarized and divided society," said Ivan Choy, a senior politics lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"That is the most important result of his five years as chief executure."
Leung has followed China's calls to focus on economic issues and steer the debate from divisive political issues. Growth is forecast to slow to a seven-year low of 1.5 per cent this year, according to a Bloomberg survey.
That approach has failed to win over the public, and Leung has consistently received lower marks in opinion surveys than either of his two predecessors. His approval rating stood at 38.5 out of 100 in November, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme. That's compares with 53.8 for his immediate predecessor, Donald Tsang, at the same point in his tenure.