, HONG KONG, Sep 30 – Facing calls for his resignation, embattled Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying has become a lightning rod for public anger as the city of seven million faces its worst political crisis since the 1997 handover.
Born in 1954, Leung the 60 year old son of a policeman has remained defiant despite pressure to step down, two years from taking office, with normally bustling city streets paralysed by tens of thousands of protesters calling for his resignation and for Beijing to grant genuine democracy in the financial hub.
A soft spoken, self made property consultant and former convener of the city’s Executive Council policy making body, Leung’s leadership has been troubled from the start, viewed by many as symbolic of Beijing’s tightening grip on the city and a conduit for their frustrations.
He has never been a popular leader and has long been nicknamed “the wolf” by his opponents, partly because his name resembles the Chinese word for wolf. The latest poll carried out in mid-September showed he had a support rating of 43.2 percent, according to a Hong Kong University survey, broadly in line with ratings throughout his tenure.
Supporters say Leung is a capable technocrat committed to the city’s reputation for being open to business. He has also instigated a number of populist policies in a city with stretched resources including bringing in a property tax for foreign buyers and stopping pregnant mothers from the mainland giving birth in the city’s strained hospitals.
However, his many critics contend that his administration favours a tiny elite of tycoons over the masses and that he is a stooge for Beijing.
Leung’s family hails from China’s eastern Shandong province but he proudly asserts that he was born and bred in Hong Kong, the Cantonese speaking former British colony reunited with China 17 years ago.
“I will try my best to safeguard the civil liberties of every resident, protect press freedom and defend the impartiality of the media,” Leung said in his inauguration speech in 2012.
But he is seen by many as having achieved the opposite in a divided city where public discontent is at its highest in years.
Rising inequality, competition for resources with mainlanders, the cost of living especially housing and the perceived erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms under its special “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement with Beijing are partly to blame.
Better known by the initials CY, Leung has consistently attracted protests by thousands of people since he was elected in 2012 by a 1,200 strong committee packed with members of pro Beijing elites, rather than by universal suffrage.
While every Hong Kong chief executive to date has been elected by a committee, the current crisis revolves around what is seen as political interference by Beijing and a debate over how the city’s next leader will be chosen under planned reforms.
China has promised to let all Hong Kong citizens elect their next leader in 2017. But only two or three candidates who have been vetted by a nominating committee will be allowed to stand.
Pro-democracy activists call the arrangement “fake democracy”, and Beijing’s ruling triggered demonstrations led by student groups and the Occupy Central movement that echo the democracy protests that hit mainland China in 1989.
Leung, a father of three, studied surveying in Hong Kong and real estate management in Britain before returning to his hometown in 1977 and joining the local office of global property firm Jones Lang Wootton.
He rose to become one of the best known figures in the city’s property sector, as Asia-Pacific chairman of real estate advisory firm DTZ Holdings.
At just 34, Leung was named secretary general of the high powered Basic Law Consultative Committee, tasked with drafting the city’s constitution after its return to Chinese rule.
More than 20 years later, his main rival for the chief executive post was business and government insider Henry Tang, the son of a Shanghai textile baron, whom most observers saw as a shoo-in for the job.
But Leung’s more confident style and populist proposals including promises to address corruption, the wealth gap and soaring housing prices put him well ahead of Tang in terms of popular approval ratings at the time.
Just a week before his inauguration, though, Leung was forced to apologise over illegal home improvements and faced criticism from an inquiry into a conflict of interest row in a government project a decade ago.
When the electoral committee voted, Leung had a clear majority over Tang: 689 to 285.
In their calls for him to step down, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists mockingly refer to Leung as “689” in reference to his backing by Beijing.