(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong is readying another test of China’s willingness to satisfy its democratic yearnings: a cross-party campaign to replace the city’s Beijing-backed but unpopular chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.
Dubbed “ABC,” for “Anyone But CY Leung,” the effort is gaining steam before September’s Legislative Council elections, the biggest vote since student-led protests shook the city two years ago. Unlike the Occupy movement, which was supported by the so-called pan-democratic camp, the ABC campaign has attracted figures with pro-establishment leanings like Liberal Party honorary chairman James Tien and Hong Kong Television Network Ltd. Chairman Ricky Wong.
While there’s been no indication China might withdraw support from Leung before his term is up for renewal in March, his critics say replacing him is the only way to break the political stalemate that has gripped post-Occupy Hong Kong. Leung, who refused protesters’ demands to soften Beijing’s plan for the next chief executive election, has been blamed for failing to quiet political divides in the city.
Meanwhile, his efforts to cool soaring property prices and curb crowds of shoppers from the Chinese mainland have come at the expense of property developers and retailers already squeezed by China’s slowdown. Hong Kong’s economy is projected to expand 1.5 percent this year, the slowest pace since 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“If CY Leung gets a second term, this is the end,” Martin Lee, 78, an elder statesman among city democrats, told the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club last month. “If anybody but CY gets in, then we have a future.”
Leung hasn’t said if he’ll seek a second term and told the South China Morning Post last month he might not make up his mind before September. When asked for a response to the ABC campaign, his office referred to a statement from June 29.
"The chief executive stressed that any decision on standing for re-election has nothing to do with the LegCo election," the government said at the time. "He has repeatedly stated that he would focus on the work at hand for the time being."
Critics of Leung’s among the pro-establishment camp cite Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, his current No. 2; Financial Secretary John Tsang; and Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang. While none have announced intentions to run, they’ve received support from Beijing over their careers and are more popular than Leung in opinion surveys.
The choice of chief executive offers Beijing a rare chance to acknowledge local concerns, amid dissatisfaction with the "One Country, Two Systems" framework that ensures free markets and freedom of expression in the former British colony. The person is selected by a 1,200-member committee of political insiders dominated by China loyalists, and subject to approval by the central government in Beijing.
Leung, who democracy advocates sometimes mock as "689" for the number of votes he got in 2012, has never been as popular as either of the two previous men chosen under the system. He received an average approval rating of 40.1 out of 100, according to a survey released earlier this month by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program. That’s down from 52.5 when he took office and 55.7 for his immediate predecessor, Donald Tsang, at the same point in his tenure.
Wong, who clashed with Leung’s government over its refusal to give HKTV a broadcast license in 2013, is running for legislator in a bid to make the citywide election a referendum on ABC. He hopes Leung’s opponents can win at least half of the 70-seat chamber, where pan-democrats often use their 28 votes to block legislation.
“If we can control the LegCo, then I think we can create significant pressure on Beijing,” Wong said. “They will have to think carefully about whether they continue to support CY or if they have to find a more acceptable solution for Hong Kong people.”
Lawmaker Alan Leong, leader of the pro-democracy Civic Party and an ABC supporter, pointed to the May visit by China’s highest-ranking official for Hong Kong as evidence that Beijing was considering a more responsive approach. Though National People’s Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang expressed satisfaction with Leung, he also met with four pan-democratic lawmakers, whom he said represented “different voices of society,” rather than “the opposition.”
“I hope that Zhang Dejiang’s visit to Hong Kong wasn’t done just for show, and that something real will follow which represents a beginning of a sea change," Leong said.
Political calculations for both Leung’s opponents and his supporters have been complicated by the rise of "localist" groups, who are also looking to use the LegCo election to pressure Beijing. Some of these groups -- frustrated by the Occupy protest failure to win concessions on greater democracy -- advocate self-determination or even independence, a view Chinese officials have denounced as "separatism."
By abandoning Leung, the Chinese government could risk appearing to make a concession to the more radical democracy advocates. Moreover, some localists have criticized the ABC movement as futile, since it assumes China will still pick the chief executive.
“You shouldn’t focus on the CE, on one person,” said Edward Leung, a pro-independence activist who’s vying for LegCo. “The source of the problem is the whole arrangement of the system.”
With the political season approaching, Leung has taken a personal role in responding to concerns dominating local headlines. He’s secured an agreement with Chinese officials to report detentions of city residents faster. The action came months after a man who sold books critical of the Communist Party disappeared off Hong Kong streets, only to reappear on the mainland.
Whether China’s willing to consider alternatives to Leung will depend much on the legislative race, said Tien of the Liberal Party. At least 81 candidates have put themselves forward since the nomination period opened Saturday.
“If the LegCo election shows that ‘ABC’ is the wish of the Hong Kong people and that momentum goes all the way until March, and polls show he is still unpopular, I am sure that Beijing will make that decision," Tien said.