Hong Kong’s democracy protesters have given the city’s top official, CY Leung, until midnight tonight to resign. If he refuses to step aside, demonstrators have threatened to storm government buildings, prompting police to stock up on riot gear and dramatically increasing the level of tension after several days of relative calm.
Demonstrators, whose primary demand is free and fair elections unencumbered by Beijing, have amassed outside of Leung’s office since early this morning.
Removing Leung, Hong Kong’s third chief executive since the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997, is about more than just China’s influence over the city’s nominally independent political system. Critics certainly deride Leung as a puppet of Beijing. He was elected by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing or pro-business figures, and even then only by 689 of 1,200 possible votes, a fact that has earned him the nickname “689.”
But as the son of a police officer who eventually built his fortune as a real-estate executive, earning him the nickname “emperor of the working class,” he is also seen as a symbol of one of the elite members of Hong Kong’s increasingly unequal society.
A recent case in point: according to Coconuts Hong Kong, a local news site, one of Leung’s daughters, Chai Yan Leung, posted a message on Facebook yesterday sarcastically thanking Hong Kong taxpayers for funding her luxury purchases. “This is actually a beautiful necklace bought at Lane Crawford (yes- funded by all you HK taxpayers!! So are all my beautiful shoes and dresses and clutches!! Thank you so much!!!!”
Leung’s office hasn’t responded to Quartz’s query of whether or not the Facebook comments were actually made by his daughter. The Facebook profile, which has now been deleted, was the source of earlier controversial posts by Chai, to which Leung and his wife have responded in the past. Though the post hasn’t been confirmed, the response shows how disliked the Leungs are. Bloggers left a slew of abusive comments on a public profile on Instagram featuring pictures of her dating back to 2012. “You and your family should burn in hell!” one wrote.
Leung is known as a soft-spoken, reserved and usually bland official whose power is not believed to extend far beyond carrying out Beijing’s orders. His approval rating stood at a respectable 43.2% in mid September. But he is now the most visible target of much of protesters vitriol.
Across the city, effigies of him burn at protest sites; in posters he is likened to Dracula; and demonstrators have lit shrines to him, a customary way to honor someone who has died. One abandoned bus has been decorated and labeled “CY Leung’s coffin,” with the destination “Hell.”
Aside from the heated rhetoric of the pro-democracy protests, there are deeper reasons why Leung inspires so much disdain. While tycoons and businessmen like Leung have benefited from ties with China—he helped mainland China open up its property market in the 1980s—average Hong Kong families haven’t seen their economic fortunes change much over the past decade. Over the last 10 years, Hong Kong’s gross domestic product has increased by 50% but median household income has only come up by about 10%.
Leung hasn’t appeared all that concerned. He said in a speech last year, “There’s a slight, subtle but important difference between poverty, which we do have, and expressing it as a wealth gap issue.”
It’s not likely Leung will resign tonight and the situation looks increasingly volatile. China’s state-run People’s Daily has pledged its support to Leung, stating that Beijing is “very satisfied” with his leadership—a sign that China won’t fire Leung as a way to ease tensions with protesters. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council chief also said today that demands for Leung’s resignation were ”impossible” to meet, and police have also warned that there will be serious consequences if protesters try to charge government buildings after the deadline passes—as it seems virtually certain to do.