CY Leung May Have Just Sealed His Own Fate

Suzanne Pepper , July 30, 2015 2:50pm

Hong Kong’s much maligned Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, made an announcement last week that might have passed as no more than a mid-term cabinet reshuffle ahead of the summer recess.   Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing 【曾德成】was replaced on July 21 by Lau Kong-wah 【劉江華】 who was until then undersecretary at the Bureau of Constitutional and Mainland affairs.  The head of the civil service was also replaced.

The two men were given their walking papers apparently without much prior notice and minus the usual courtesies, but as they drove off into unexpected early retirement, the implications especially of the reshuffle at the Home Affairs Bureau began to reverberate.  In light of political events just passed and those to come, the consequences are likely to lead all the way from here to the District Councils election this coming November, the Legislative Council election a year from now, and the Chief Executive election/selection in 2017.

All things considered, CY Leung has taken a real gamble with the Home Affairs appointments and he may have just scuttled his chances for the second term he has hinted broadly that he wants.  But there is much ground to cover on the way to that result and CY’s gamble might actually pay off.  He is, after all, the man who elbowed his way into the 2012 Chief Executive selection race when no one thought he had a chance because Beijing officials had already settled on someone else to fill the post.


Key to the risk Leung has taken are the two men moving in and out as head of the Home Affairs Bureau and the changing nature of Hong Kong political life they represent.  Both are pro-Beijing loyalists to a fault.  But one can boast a life-long commitment,  is party-line through and through, and accustomed to the old ways when Hong Kong’s patriotic community, as it then liked to call itself, was honored with appointments to the people’s congress delegation of neighboring Guangdong province.  Mainstream colonial Hong Kong kept the community in its place and the general public ignored them one and all.

This is Tsang Tak-sing, now 66, who won fame within the patriotic community during his student days when he was sentenced to two years in prison.  His crime: handing out seditious anti-British leaflets during the late 1960s when China’s Cultural Revolution crossed the border briefly and spilled over into Hong Kong.  His pamphleteering skills were put to good use in a youthful memoir, “Sunrise Over Stanley Prison,” that circulated for years among admirers after his release.  He became a journalist, was hired by the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper, and rose rapidly to become its chief editor in 1988.

Lau Kong-wah, now 58, began his political career as a pro-democracy activist, joining the movement when it began in the 1980s, ahead of the return to Chinese rule.  He was a member of United Democrats, forerunner of today’s Democratic Party.   So Lau was there at the start, when activists began making the transition, trying to learn how to be politicians and contest elections.  These the British finally introduced here, first at the district level in the 1980s (when today’s District Councils were called District Boards), and in 1991 for a minority of Legislative Councilors.  But then something happened.

Lau withdrew from United Democrats in the early 1990s, lost two elections to then firebrand democrat Emily Lau Wai-hing 【劉慧卿】, and decided to try his luck elsewhere, formally switching sides in the late 1990s.  He had already begun community organizing work around his Shatin home base in the New Territories and set up his own group, Civil Force 【公民力量】, in 1993.   Civil Force seems to have been well rewarded by his new friends.  The group allied with the main pro-Beijing political party, Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), after he joined in the late 1990s.  Lau went on to become one of its vice-chairmen and never looked back, nor did he miss a chance to thumb his nose at the colleagues he left behind on the campaign trail.

Civil Force still contests elections as a separate group and does not declare its DAB affiliation on campaign fliers.  But Shatin constituents no longer care whether Civil Force candidates are democrats or not so pervasive and reliable are the neighborhood services the group’s members are providing –  friends in need for sure and they dominate the Shatin District Council as a result.  In fact, the DAB and its allies now have majorities on all 18 of Hong Kong’s District Councils where voters reciprocate in return for the same kind of well-funded community outreach efforts.


Because community organization and District Council management are part of the Home Affairs Bureau’s multi-task portfolio, with projects to approve and funds to allocate.  The Bureau is also responsible for youth work and civic education as well as sports, entertainment, and culture.   The more pertinent question is why Tsang Tak-sing was placed at the helm there in the first place since he is from the party-managed people’s congress tradition.  Western-style electioneering and community outreach have never featured on his resume.

His appointment was reportedly made at Beijing’s behest and suggests just how out-of-sync its effort to impose mainland ways can be.  Tsang took up the post on July 1, 2007, when Beijing was still working to reverse the impact of Hong Kong’s unexpected 2003 rebellion against Beijing’s demand for national security legislation.  It was in official minds that a tried-and-true “traditional” loyalist should be placed in charge of such work.

Except that Tsang Tak-sing’s only real qualification was his political loyalty, a view that he himself helped reinforce.  He apparently felt ill-suited for the assignment and made no secret of his intention to serve for one term (2007-12) only.  He also did not hide his sense of resignation when there seemed no one else to succeed him in 2012.  It was a duty performed with no apparent enthusiasm.  His replacement thus makes perfect sense:  an active player experienced on the local election scene, a beneficiary of the pro-Beijing camp’s grassroots success, and someone well-versed in its strategy and tactics for winning elections.

The timing is also right:  a change of leadership ahead of the coming election cycle when Hong Kong’s all-important political way forward hinges on the outcome.  Pro-Beijing forces have already declared their one and only aim:  win enough seats to guarantee a two-thirds Legislative Council majority.  This is necessary to pass Beijing’s design for the 2017 Chief Executive universal suffrage election that pro-democracy legislators have just vetoed.  Clear victories four months from now in the District Councils election would boost morale and momentum, a first step up the ladder, with campaigning due to begin in earnest after the summer recess. If all that could come to pass, Leung’s thinly veiled desire for a second term could easily become reality.If all that could come to pass, Leung’s thinly veiled desire for a second term could easily become reality.


Herein lies the risk that CY Leung has taken by showing Tsang Tak-sing the door in so unceremonious a fashion.  Leung himself came out to make the brief announcement, damning with faint praise, so it cannot be blamed on anyone else.  An unnamed administration “source” made it worse with an online explanation: Beijing and Leung were not satisfied with Tsang’s performance and were holding him responsible for inadequate youth work seen as a factor underlying the Occupy protest movement last year.

The source was subsequently outed: a pro-CY Leung website and Facebook page called “Speak Out HK.”  Readers also thought they could identify the culprit, none other than Democratic Party defector and now CY’s information coordinator Andrew Fung Wai-kwong【馮煒光】.

Fellow loyalists sprang instantly to Tsang’s defense.   Insult one of us and insult us all they are saying.  His appointment in 2007 was seen as a breakthrough for “traditional leftists,” as they took to calling themselves in the early 2000s, when there was much grumbling about being passed over for plum posts that were all going to latter-day patriots – holdovers from the colonial past.

Tsang is so loyal a team player, said sympathizers, that if someone wanted him to leave, all anyone had to do was say the word and he would be gone.  Instead, Tsang was the last to know.  Shabby treatment indeed for a lifetime spent in devotion to the Motherland.  Tsang’s achievement, editorialized his old paper, lies in his patriotism not his position as bureau chief.   Former colleague Li Yi, now known for his pro-democracy commentaries in Apple Daily, returned to his roots with a sympathetic defense of Tsang.

But no one has been more outspoken than his elder brother Jasper Tsang Yok-sing 【曾鈺成】.  In his case, too, loyalist credentials extend back to student days and family as well.  Additionally, he was founding chairman of the DAB in the 1990s, is currently a DAB Legislative Councilor, and presides as president over the Legislative Council.  It is generally assumed but never openly said that the Tsang brothers are not only pillars of the traditional patriotic establishment but members as well of Hong Kong’s as yet unacknowledged underground communist party branch.

Initially, Jasper Tsang said he was surprised at the news and knew for certain his brother had not initiated the move.  Later he wrote and posted an article about leadership qualities, saying it was just a thought piece, but denouncing arrogance and egotism.  Then he gave a radio interview blasting the “stupid” and “pig-like” source who had put it about that Tsang Tak-sing was derelict in his duties and somehow responsible for Occupy (July 27:  South China Morning PostStandardMing Pao).

Nor did the pushback end with a few commentaries and Facebook posts.  As it happened, a large DAB delegation was just then paying a visit to Beijing to try and explain how they lost the political reform vote on June 18.   The official in charge of Hong Kong, Zhang Dejiang 【張德江】 admonished them to win a two-thirds majority in the coming 2016 Legislative Council election.   But the group also returned with a not-so-subtle message for CY.

The DAB’s new chair, Starry Lee Wai-king, announced that Beijing had not made up its mind about Leung’s second term and any speculation to that effect was premature.  He himself had fueled the speculation after his own trip north a few weeks ago when he said Beijing leaders had praised his work, although they seem not to have wanted to go on the record because there was no subsequent official statement to that effect.  Lee also made a point of saying that Leung’s administration would suffer if officials were worried about losing their jobs in more sudden reshuffles.

So what might Leung have been thinking when he set this damaging train of events in motion?  Calculating and opportunistic a politician that he is, the Home Affairs change makes perfect sense.  But why antagonize a key sector of the pro-government coalition that has been nurtured by Beijing since 1949 and whose enthusiasm CY will need if he wants a second term?  He cannot have failed to anticipate the impact Tsang Tak-sing’s summary dismissal would provoke.

No doubt he was taking the patriotic community for granted —  calculating that they can be counted on to obey Beijing’s command no matter what and Beijing will anoint him for a second term no matter what —  if only his team can orchestrate victories in the coming elections.

He might also have thought to score a few points among democrats and any remaining colonial types since Tsang Tak-sing is no longer the friendly young journalist everyone wanted to meet in the 1970s.  By the 1980s he was already affecting the style of a humorless ideologue who did not suffer “dissent” lightly, as if taking the polemical headlines of his newspaper too much to heart.   This trait was epitomized in his public mockery of former chief secretary Anson Chan during a Legislative Council debate soon after he was appointed bureau chief in 2007.   He addressed her as a “sudden democrat” who couldn’t distinguish between working for the people’s benefit and for that of colonial officials.

But any points won for embarrassing Tsang will be outweighed many times over by the negatives registered from appointing Lau Kong-wah to replace him.  Using the likes of Lau and Andrew Feng in such provocative roles will only reinforce the antagonism Leung himself generates among pan-democrats.   With Lau in particular, CY may inadvertently succeed in doing what they have never been able to accomplish on their own:  unite around a common cause to defeat a common adversary.  Denying him a second term might be just the cause that can do it.

Suzanne Pepper

A Hong Kong-based American writer with a long-standing interest in 20th century Chinese politics.