Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) is facing fresh uncertainty over the political support he has from China after his campaign manager and close ally Barry Cheung (張震遠) quit the Cabinet last month because of a police investigation into his commodities trading business.
It was the latest in a series of scandals to hit Leung since he took office in July last year in a move orchestrated by Beijing. In other embarrassments, his development minister has been arrested, there have been mass public protests against the government and opponents have attempted to impeach him.
Local media said the police investigation of Cheung, the latest scandal, could be the last straw, but the senior Chinese official in charge of Hong Kong affairs made the unusual move last week of denying reports that Beijing was preparing to replace Leung.
“It is certainly damaging to his [Leung’s] political credibility,” said Joseph Wong (王永平), a former head of Hong Kong’s civil service, of the scandal. “The isolation is there... and people will question whether he really has the ability and confidence of the people to lead.”
How Beijing reacts to the scandal will reflect how far Beijing will go in maintaining the “one country, two systems” formula that underpins Hong Kong’s ties with China.
Some analysts say with Leung weakened, and Hong Kong preparing for an annual round of anti-China protests to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Beijing could move to stamp more authority in the territory.
Cheung, Leung’s close ally and friend, resigned from the Cabinet and other official posts 10 days ago.
He is now helping police with their inquiries into the failure of the Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange (HKMEx) that he founded and chaired until it closed last month.
Despite prominent shareholders that included the En+ Group of Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and the Hong Kong arm of China’s biggest lender, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), HKMEx’s volume of gold and silver future trades had been thin.
The territory’s market regulator, the Securities and Futures Commission, last month warned of “serious irregularities” in the exchange’s operations — sparking police investigations that have led to the arrests of six people.
Three of them, all men, have been charged with possessing false bank documents, including a check worth US$460 million. Cheung, who was not among those arrested, denied any illegality and pledged full cooperation with authorities.
However, Cheung resigned from Leung’s core policymaking body, the Executive Council, and as chief of Hong Kong’s powerful Urban Renewal Authority, which can take over private buildings to guide urban regeneration. He also stepped down from the boards of Deripaska’s locally listed Russian aluminum miner United Company RUSAL Co, and the insurer, AIA Group.
Known locally as a consummate networker and the “king of public office,” Cheung had also headed a civilian committee that reviewed the pay and conditions of Hong Kong’s police and other services. At one point, he also headed an advisory panel on corruption prevention.
Mounting opposition to China in Hong Kong is also a headache for Leung.
Tens of thousands of people are expected on the streets this week to mark the Tiananmen Square crackdown and, later, the 16th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British rule on July 1.