C.Y. Leung was relatively unknown before taking Hong Kong's top job in 2012
Chief Executive portrays himself as a man of people but does not enjoy popular support
Many in the city believe he is Beijing's lackey
Protester leaders have demanded that he resign -- a demand as yet unheeded
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist?
C.Y. Leung, the Hong Kong leader whose resignation has become a rallying cry for the protesters that have filled the city’s streets this week, was a relative unknown before he took the top job in 2012.
As the son of a policeman who has used the same briefcase since his student days, his supporters said he would improve the lot of ordinary people in a city that has one of the world’s widest wealth gaps.
“He wanted to present himself as someone from the grassroots, not linked to the tycoons… but people have been terribly disappointed,” says Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.
It’s Leung’s failure to make progress on the universal suffrage that was promised to the city under the terms of its 1997 handover to China that has rankled Hong Kongers most, bringing tens of thousands of them onto the streets in recent days.
One of his nicknames is “689” – a sarcastic reference to the number of votes he obtained from the city’s 1,200-strong election committee, a group of people selected from the largely pro-Beijing elite.
And Leung, a former surveyor and real estate consultant, has done little to dispel the prevailing view that he is Beijing’s lackey.
A day after being elected as chief executive he paid a visit to the central government liaison office, Beijing’s outpost in the city and he was the first leader to make his inauguration speech in Mandarin – rather than the Cantonese that is spoken by most people in this former British colony.
“He is in daily communication with Beijing,” says Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “C.Y. is a very obedient cadre.”
Despite this, Leung was not in fact Beijing’s first choice to become chief executive. The early favorite was Henry Tang, a bumbling former financial secretary best known for his penchant for red wine.
But revelations that Tang’s home had an enormous basement which hadn’t been approved for planning permission, dubbed an underground palace, derailed his campaign.
However, it was later discovered that Leung’s home in the city’s exclusive Peak neighborhood also had an illegal structure.
Leung declared ignorance but it undermined trust in the city’s new leader from the get-go and helped earn him another nickname – “wolf.”
The moniker sounds similar in Cantonese to his family name but also suggests a cunning political operator.
His approval ratings have plummeted since 2012 and a plush toy wolf made by IKEA sold out across the city earlier this year as Hong Kongers, eager to use it as a tongue-in-cheek symbol of protest, snapped it up.
A gigantic, enlarged effigy of Leung’s head, replete with lupine fangs, has also been a distinctive sight on the streets during the protests.
For all his colorful nicknames, Harry Harrison, political cartoonist at the South China Morning Post, the city’s main English-language newspaper, says Leung is a difficult character to portray.
“C.Y., despite his pantomime villain appearance, hasn’t really turned out to be all that cartoonable,” he told CNN. “I’ve hardly featured him in any cartoons for months now.”
Those that do usually feature Leung sitting in his office with a picture of malevolent panda – symbolizing China – behind him.
The reason, says Harrison, is that Leung is rarely out and about and has little public presence, coming across as aloof.
His unease with ordinary members of the public has been on display this week.
Leung has only appeared in public three times; twice for press conferences and once for a National Day flag-raising ceremony attended by dignitaries.
Protest leaders have repeatedly called for him to go and refuse to negotiate with him, preferring a meeting with his number two – Carrie Lam.
While Leung says he will not resign, many observers feel his days are numbered, with protesters setting up a makeshift tomb at the protest site.
“Beijing would … lose face if they were to sack Leung in the near future,” says Lam at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
But “it’s a foregone conclusion that C.Y. Leung has to go because he is a very divisive and very unpopular figure.”