After weeks of mayhem in Hong Kong, it seems the political demonstrations are finally simmering down – at least to a negotiation deadlock. As an outsider to all the madness, the turned violent protests and excessive police responses begs the question; how did the political demonstrations escalate so rapidly in Asia’s hub of free trade and opportunity?
Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, the picture that emerges is not one of sudden protests, but a gradual festering of public dissatisfaction spiraling into a state of political turmoil. Many of these scattered puzzle pieces seem to originate from the conditions under which the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, CY Leung, was elected and this has set the political tone for the last couple of years.
Hong Kong became the People’s Republic of China’s first Special Administrative Region on 1 July 1997, under the principle of “one country, two systems”. Since the handover, there have been three Chief Executives (CE) of Hong Kong with CY Leung being the third CE elected in 2012. However, the former two CEs were elected under much more encouraging circumstances with 80 and 70 percent approval ratings from the population compared to 55 percent for CY Leung.
The 2012 election campaign was controversial. The early favorite to win was long-considered to be former Chief Secretary Henry Tang, who was support by the local bureaucracy, powerful business tycoons, and crucially, by the Beijing government. As the main opposition, CY Leung also had support from the People’s Republic, but looked for any opportunity to gain an edge in the election.
This chance came when an illegal basement controversy clouded Henry Tang’s campaign on 13 Febraary 2012 accusing the candidate over unapproved basement extensions of his two adjoining residences in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong. Due to various regulations in Hong Kong, residences are not allowed to have basements as well as any fixtures that add square footage to properties. Tang’s strongly denied submitting false floor plans on multiple occasions, but soon thereafter, his wife admitted to the illegal structures in their residence. Led by criticisms by CY Leung and Henry Tang’s unwillingness of giving a straightforward answer, Tang’s support level among the public continued to nosedive to where 66% believed he should quit the race.
Tang blamed the mishandling of the situation on marital problems he was facing, but refused to quit the race. However, CY Leung had already secured a lead over Tang and went on to win the election with just 55 percent support from the public.
With already somewhat low popularity, I believe CY Leung took two major hits that have left Hong Kongers with an even more bitter taste in their mouths. Just after his selecting, a number of illegal or unauthorized structures were found at Leung’s house, in an ironic déjà vu to the scandal that secured Leung’s election. The issue dominated the period leading up to Leung taking office and several leaders considered disputing his legal legitimacy as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.
As a Hong Kong citizen, I would be furious about Leung’s hypocritical accusations in attacking his opponent during the 2012 election. Rightfully so, Leung’s already low popularity took another big hit. And to add fuel to the fire, one of Leung’s first decisions as CE was appointment of 27-year-old Chen Ran as his Project Officer; Chen Ran being a daughter of a middle-ranking government official in Shanghai and former member of the Communist Youth League.
Over the past 2 years, CY Leungs tenure has been littered with other such decisions and similar public backlashes. Leung’s popularity ratings have been continuously low, with recent reports under 30 percent and over 60 percent disapproval rate. Every public outing or speech CY Leung shows his face, protesters heckle him to a point where I feel anything he does people find discourse with.
The political tone of CY Leung’s tenure has been tolerable at best since its inception. The narrative is one of gradual buildup in pubic discontent, not sudden political demonstrations, as the media has portrayed. Will what the leaders of the demonstrators are asking for, CY Leung’s resignation, provide an answer to protesters? I believe it will, given the circumstances surrounding his tenure.