Hong Kong’s little-loved leader is one of the world’s best-paid politicians

Because he’s worth it.
Because he’s worth it.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recently announced pay raise, to a paltry $22,300 a year, sparked plenty of skepticism that the leader of the world’s largest economy (maybe) was actually earning such a small sum. And Xi’s salary is especially jarring when you consider that the leaders of the special administrative regions China oversees are some of the world’s most well-paid politicians.

Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung—who oversees a population of about 7 million people, smaller than nearly all of China’s “Tier 1” cities—is the world’s second-highest paid head of state. Leung, who is deeply unpopular among Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, recently lifted a lawmaker pay freeze instituted in 2009.

Macau’s chief executive Fernando Chui, who oversees a population of just 566,000 and ran uncontested in 2009, also earns more than most leaders of the world’s biggest economies. His attempts to give more perks to political appointees resulted in the city’s largest protests in years this past summer.

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All salaries above were converted to US dollars at Jan. 22 exchange rates, and generally don’t include perks like housing, transportation, food and support staff that are generally included with the position. Some salaries have been hit hard by currency fluctuations, like Russian president Vladimir Putin’s.

The Hong Kong chief executive’s high salary has its roots in colonial times—the last head of the city before the 1997 handover from the British to the Chinese, Governor Christopher Patten, was paid $273,000 a year, “chauffeured about in a Rolls-Royce that bears a crown instead of a license plate,” and given “a 90-foot yacht, a weekend villa, and a household staff of 56,” as The New York Times reported (paywall) when Patten took the job in 1992. Despite the high salary, which was set by the colony and criticized in the UK, few coveted his job, the Times reported, because of perceived difficultly balancing demands from leaders in London and Britain.

Things didn’t change much with the handover to Beijing, at least when it came to paying the city’s leaders. Patten’s successor, Tung Chee-hwa, a Beijing-approved shipping magnate, was paid over $378,500 a year at the end of his tenure. His successor Donald Tsang, a career civil servant-turned finance secretary, earned a higher wage still.

The disparity between what Xi is earning, and what his much-less powerful counterparts in Macau and Hong Kong bring home, is all the more glaring given China’s recent government austerity drive, and Beijing’s heavy-handed attempts force Hong Kong to adhere to Beijing’s rules on matters such as free speech and freedom of the press. When it comes to public leaders’ pay, at least, “one country, two systems” appears to be alive and well.