Hong Kong's Leung Chun Ying gets re-election boost

After his move against 2 pro-independence lawmakers, leader receives Xi's backing

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying

In moving against the two pro-independence lawmakers later disqualified for insulting China in their swearing-in oaths, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying looks to have increased his chances of being re-elected, say analysts.

On Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping was reported to have endorsed his administration and offered his full support when he met Mr Leung on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Peru.

In particular, Mr Xi had urged Mr Leung and the Hong Kong government to firmly safeguard national unity and maintain social stability.

The endorsement from China's top leader himself goes in some way to dispel talk that Mr Leung's lack of popularity with the Hong Kong public may make Beijing wary of backing him, say analysts.

Mr Leung's move to challenge the validity of the oaths of Mr Sixtus Leung and Ms Yau Wai Ching of the pro-independence Youngspiration party led to a ruling by the Hong Kong High Court last week to bar them from the legislature.

It had also paved the way for Beijing to hand down an interpretation of the Basic Law, or mini-Constitution, and the eventual disqualification of the two lawmakers, said political scientist James Sung.

Without Mr Leung's move, there would be no judicial review of the Basic Law, which provided a chance for the National People's Congress to intervene, he added.

Beijing's support is essential if Mr Leung wants to be re-elected when a 1,200-strong election committee chooses Hong Kong's next top leader on March 26 next year.

Last month, retired judge Woo Kwok Hing became the first to announce his bid for the city's top post, although lawmaker Regina Ip, former secretary for security, has also expressed interest. Others who may run include former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and Financial Secretary John Tsang.

Despite having hinted to the media that he is keen to serve for a second term, Mr Leung has yet to confirm his candidacy.

The endorsement from China's top leader himself goes in some way to dispel talk that Mr Leung's lack of popularity with the Hong Kong public may make Beijing wary of backing him, say analysts.

Beijing has depended on the city's government to block the independence movement in Hong Kong, but the administration failed to do so when at least six lawmakers who are for direct elections and self-determination in the city were elected into the legislature in September.

Mr Leung's move this time round would no doubt help him score brownie points with Beijing, which is especially worried about the threat posed by the pro-independence movement, say analysts.

Mr Leung's recent remarks about how it is timely to enact the controversial anti-subversion law, Article 23, also showed that he is reliable in carrying out Beijing's interests in Hong Kong, said analyst Willy Lam.

These developments may mark a turnaround for Mr Leung, who has been unpopular with the public.

In a poll on the city's potential chief executives conducted by Hong Kong University last month, Mr Leung was ranked the least popular out of possible contenders.

In recent months, Mr Leung has had to defend himself in a financial scandal involving HK$50 million (S$9.2 million) paid to him by Australian firm UGL and from accusations that he colluded with triads, businesses and rural leaders in deciding to reduce 17,000 units of planned public housing to just 4,000.

During this year's July 1 march to mark the anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, 110,000 protesters voiced their dissatisfaction with his administration and demanded his resignation.

Still, some analysts say Beijing has not decided who it will pick as the top official in Hong Kong.

There has not been one who is better than the other among the potential candidates, said Professor Lau Siu Kai, vice-chairman of the Beijing- backed Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies.

Prof Lau said Beijing is still concerned about how unpopular Mr Leung is with Hong Kongers. The ideal candidate will be someone who can unite the society and resolve social conflicts and issues of independence, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline 'HK's Leung gets re-election boost'. Subscribe