Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) has been dogged by scandal from his first days in office and his personal integrity is routinely impugned by much of the public. It is no surprise that his popularity is plummeting.
Leung has only himself to blame. He seems incapable of connecting with ordinary Hong Kong citizens, instead coming across as a shifty politician who often dodges direct questions, offers vague answers and evades responsibility for major failings by apologizing for minor shortcomings.
Leung staked his reputation on being able to tame Hong Kong’s absurdly inflated property market and has failed miserably. Indeed, Hong Kong is now the most expensive city on the planet. It takes at least 13.5 years of mean household income to buy an average home, according to one recent international survey. The comparable figure for London and New York is 7.8 years and 6.2 years respectively.
Rising property prices are making middle-class home owners multimillionaires, while their children — even with a good university degree — can hardly afford private housing without parental help.
Leung has advocated that young people leave Hong Kong to work in less-expensive countries.
Leung came into his job with a self-destructive attitude. Like his mentor, Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), Hong Kong’s first chief executive after its return to China, Leung harbors a deep antipathy toward the British and the professional civil service, a legacy of colonialism.
He adheres to the Maoist idea that a country is divided between “the people” and their “enemies” (never mind that he was the youngest and first Chinese partner in a British property-surveyor firm in Hong Kong, and that Tung studied nautical engineering in the UK).
However, treating the civil service as a potential enemy was clearly stupid, because only the civil servants know how the government actually works.
Neither Tung nor Leung had any operational government experience, which was most clearly demonstrated in their indifferent attitude toward public appointments. The anti-corruption police arrested Mak Chai-kwong (麥齊光), Leung’s first secretary of development, only 12 days after he was appointed. His successor, Paul Chan Mo-po (陳茂波), was soon exposed as a one-time slum-lord.
The information that undermined both officials had been buried deep in official documents, and could have surfaced only because someone, or some group, in the civil service with access decided that it would be best to leak it.
In Tung’s administration, two Cabinet secretaries also had to quit following damaging disclosures. With a couple of notable exceptions, the mediocrity of most of Leung’s appointees elicited sighs even from his political allies.
The same incompetence is at the root of his failure to deflate the property bubble. While he has announced grandiose plans to increase the future supply of land for development and has increased stamp duty twice, the market has figured out that he does not understand that he needs to manage expectations by removing obstacles in the current development pipeline.
His measures have increased prices while shrinking the number of transactions — precisely the opposite of what is needed.
One major roadblock that Leung fails to appreciate is caused by an obscure 1981 UK Privy Council ruling, Hang Wah Chong Investment Co Ltd v Attorney General of Hong Kong, which gave the government unlimited authority to behave as a revenue-maximizing private monopolist.