Hong Kong's embattled leader cancels public meeting, citing danger

The chief executive's fortunes appear tied to a peaceful resolution of the 'Occupy Central' protests. Leung Chun-ying has remained largely quiet during democracy protests and today cancelled an appearance before Hong Kong's legislature.

Kin Cheung/AP
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying speaks to the media after a presentation ceremony in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014.

Hong Kong protesters in their 19th day of civil disobedience have repeatedly called for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign. So far, the city’s Beijing-approved leader has remained largely invisible during a tumultuous sit-in in Asia's financial hub. 

Now amid clashes between protesters and riot police – and a filmed beating by police of an unarmed protester – Leung has postponed a public question time with Hong Kong lawmakers set for Thursday, saying the atmosphere is “dangerous.”

Protests here erupted in September over China's insistence that only Beijing-approved candidates were eligible for election to the city's top job. Democracy advocates and a wide swath of middle class Hong Kongers saw this as a broken promise by China. 

Polls show Mr. Leung’s popularity at a record low in Hong Kong, and his resignation is seen as one possible step toward resolving the most contentious protests in decades, one representing a political problem for Communist Party-run mainland China.

Adding to Leung's woes, Australian media reported last week that before he took office in 2012 he received $6.5 million in undisclosed payments from an Australian engineering firm, UGL, which has financial tie-ups with Hong Kong's subway and train operator, the MTR Corp. Leung has denied any wrongdoing, but refused to comment further. Analysts say his silence appears to mirror his strategy in dealing with Occupy Central protesters. 

As a reason for not appearing Thursday, Leung cited the highly charged atmosphere in the wealthy city-state. On Wednesday, police apparently beat a Civic Party protester named Ken Tsang Kin-chiu and allegedly roughed up reporters. A video of the beating of Mr. Tsang has gone viral and several officers have been suspending pending an investigation.

Analysts say Leung had hoped to appear before Legco, as the 70-member legislature is known, during a lull in demonstrations, which have fallen from a peak of 100,000 protesters to several hundred. But after the standoff Wednesday the chief  executive would likely have to contend with angry protests in the streets outside, as well as hostile questioning by pro-democracy lawmakers inside, who have already pledged not to cooperate with the government.

The Civic Party's Alan Leong, a legislator, said the chief executive "not only lacks the ability to lead, he has lost the will to lead."

Leung’s limited appearances during recent weeks include a press conference during the protest, a video statement taped at his official residence, and a one-on-one TV interview conducted by a pro-Beijing broadcaster. The Hong Kong Journalists Association criticized Leung for granting an interview to a single news organization in a city that prides itself on a free press.

Adding to the furore, mask-wearing anti-Occupy Central demonstrators have blocked the exit of a printing plant in Tseung Kwan O for four nights running. Their action has affected the distribution of Apple Daily, owned by pro-democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, as well as the delivery of other papers printed there, including The International New York Times.

Police have not cleared those blockades, and after Wednesday’s beating of Tsang, the Democratic Party in Hong Kong announced that 10 of its local representatives will quit their seats on local crime committees in protest at police behavior. In a statement, Amnesty International quoted a lawyer for Tsang saying that his client, who remains in police custody, faced charges of unlawful assembly and obstructing police officers from carrying out their duties.

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