HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao swore in Beijing loyalist Leung Chun-ying as Hong Kong’s leader on Sunday, the third chief executive to lead the former British colony since it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
Leung, 57, is a self-made surveyor, former senior Hong Kong government adviser and known as a suave, and at times ruthless, political operator with close ties to China’s Communist Party, particularly Hu’s Youth League faction.
A high-flying member of Hong Kong’s elite and son of a policeman, Leung forged a business career in property and played an important mediating role between China and Britain during tense and protracted negotiations leading up to the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Dubbed the “wolf” for what some describe as his steely edge, the tall, trim Leung has been labeled a secret Communist Party cadre -- an accusation he denies -- by some of staunchly capitalist Hong Kong’s media and politicians.
Already an enigmatic figure viewed with suspicion by many in Hong Kong, Leung became ensnared two weeks before taking office in a seemingly minor but snowballing scandal over six illegal constructions in his HK$500 million ($64 million) hilltop villa.
Leung’s popularity ratings have since fallen, while small groups of protesters draped black banners over his front gate, denouncing him as a liar and calling for his resignation.
Further inflaming an indignant public was Leung’s attack on tycoon and election rival Henry Tang earlier in the year, over a similar scandal involving an illegal basement that badly hit Tang’s campaign and led to Leung’s improbable win.
The seven million people of Hong Kong have no say in their choice of leader. Instead, Leung was selected by an elite 1,200-member election committee on March 25, filled with Beijing loyalists, among them tycoons and business professionals.
While Leung has shaky support from the city’s business community and civil service, some politicians say Leung will be helped by Beijing’s Hong Kong Liaison office, that aggressively lobbied behind the scenes for Leung as Tang’s campaign floundered.
“The China liaison office front line is now micro-managing (Hong Kong) politics,” said Sin Chung-kai, the vice chairman of the opposition Democratic Party. “The liaison office is the mastermind and the chief actor is C.Y. Leung.”
“POLITICALLY CONSERVATIVE, HARDLINE”
While Hong Kong’s chief executives are more like mayors and generally lack the influence of China’s frontline leaders, an unpopular leader can stoke risks and unnerve Beijing, which prefers stable transitions.
During a campaign debate, Leung was accused of proposing the use of riot police and teargas to quell a half-million strong protest in 2003 over proposed anti-subversion laws -- a governance crisis that rattled Beijing and ultimately forced then-leader Tung Chee-hwa from office mid-term.
“The situation will be very tough. Many people do not like his top-down management style and his deviation from the core values of Hong Kong,” said Dixon Sing, a political scientist. “He has been extremely politically conservative and hardline.”
In 2010, Leung was asked whether he would support the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. He replied that China’s former paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, should have been the first Chinese to win the award.
Still, Leung’s confident and decisive style could help shake up Hong Kong and its civil service at a time when the city faces waning regional competitiveness, economic headwinds and exorbitant property prices that have widened a wealth gap to post-handover highs, and an oligopolistic clutch of powerful property tycoons who now dominate the city’s economy.
Leung, himself has pledged to pursue more socially inclusive policies at a time when several former top officials are being investigated for corruption and overly cozy ties with tycoons.
“We will safeguard the core values that we have treasured for years, resolve deep-seated conflicts, improve the livelihood of our people and work towards the harmony and stability of our society,” Leung said this week when announcing his new team.
Leung studied at the Hong Kong Polytechnic and Real Estate Management at Bristol Polytechnic in Britain. He went into real estate and was chairman of property brokerage firm DTZ’s Asian arm before he resigned in November to run for Hong Kong leader.
Leung was made the head of the Basic Law Consultative Committee of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, when he was just 34. He later became a member of China’s powerful preparatory committee, which oversaw Hong Kong’s transition.
A father of three, Leung, popularly dubbed “CY”, is a member of China’s leading political consultative body and was once convener of Hong Kong’s cabinet, the Executive Council.
Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie