Spring 1989 seemed like a good time to start a family in Hong Kong. The Basic Law, which would become the then British colony’s mini-constitution after China reasserted its sovereignty on July 1 1997, had just gone through a second draft and would be completed within a year.
C.Y. Leung, a property surveyor and then secretary general of the Chinese government’s Basic Law advisory committee, looked forward to a respite from his public duties.
Just days after Mr Leung and his wife, Regina, celebrated the birth of their first child, martial law was declared in Beijing as the Chinese Communist party prepared to crush the massive protest movement that had developed in Tiananmen Square. On June 4, the tanks rolled in.
“On June 4, we were in Hong Kong holding the baby,” Mr Leung remembers. “We all had a pretty rosy view of Hong Kong’s future. That’s why we started our family.
“Then 1989 hit Hong Kong sideways and the process of Hong Kong’s return to China became a lot more complicated both [internally] and internationally. Things remained very difficult between Britain and China to the last day – and that was not expected.”
Eighteen years later Mr Leung, 53, is convenor of the Executive Council, a cabinet body that advises Hong Kong’s chief executive, Donald Tsang. As a pillar of the pro-Beijing establishment, Mr Leung is also on most observers’ shortlists of potential future chief executives. Mr Tsang’s second – and final – term ends in 2012, when his replacement will be anointed by an “election committee” comprised of largely pro-Beijing business and community elites.
Mr Leung moves between many worlds, without seeming to belong to any one in particular. The son of a Hong Kong policeman, he was raised in modest circumstances and lives on the Peak, the territory’s most exclusive enclave.
Partly because of his upbringing, Mr Leung has a keen interest in social policy. When an employers’ association recently invited him to speak on the possible introduction of controversial minimum wage legislation, he took the opportunity to lecture them on the territory’s stubborn poverty: 13 per cent of the workforce, principally cleaners and security guards, subsist on annual incomes of less than US$9,250.
“I think these figures speak a thousand words,” says Mr Leung. “I do not confine my life to the Peak and Central [the territory’s business district] ... Just get on a tram and travel 30 minutes in any direction. It’s a very different Hong Kong.”
Mr Leung studied estate management at Bristol Polytechnic in the mid-1970s and, just five years later, became an equity partner at Jones Lang Wooten, a British real estate consultancy. In 1993 he founded his own firm, which later became part of DTZ Holdings, a London-listed real estate consultancy. Mr Leung is DTZ’s Asia-Pacific chairman and largest personal shareholder.
Yet unlike so many other high-fliers who also parlayed overseas educations into successful professional careers, he never flirted with Hong Kong’s colonial establishment. He planted his flag with the pro-Beijing camp at a precociously young age.
Mr Leung says about his high school, King’s College: “There was a sense of history and nationalism.” At Bristol Polytechnic, he bonded with other patriotically inclined overseas Chinese students from Hong Kong and south-east Asia.
“There was always this aspiration of doing something for the country. China was so backward then it was unreal,” he recalls. “I always felt that the day would come in our generation when Hong Kong would have a new identity. It could simply not carry on as a colony.”
Most people spoken of as potential future chief executives rose to prominence through Hong Kong’s civil service – both under British and Chinese rule – or one of the territory’s two pro-Beijing political parties, or their families’ business empires. Mr Leung, by contrast, has glided through a series of Beijing-anointed positions.
In the early 1980s, as China negotiated with Britain the terms of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, government officials consulted Mr Leung on land lease issues.
He also founded the Association of Experts for the Modernisation of China, whose volunteer members advised officials on issues such as urban planning, land auctions and property rights.
These contacts led to a series of more formal advisory positions, through which Mr Leung rose to prominence before 1997 – including the Basic Law Consultative Committee, of which he became secretary general of aged 34, and the “provisional” Legislative Council. The provisional Legco shadowed and then replaced the colony’s final legislature, elected in 1995 under democratic reforms championed by Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patten, but rejected by Beijing.
After the handover Mr Leung was appointed to the Executive Council, on which he has now served for 11 years, and also the standing committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Mr Leung makes no apologies for his formidable connections in Beijing, and suggests these come with weighty responsibilities. He speaks frankly of the “huge gaps of understanding” that continue to exist between Beijing and Hong Kong.
“There were people who said they would never go to Beijing again [after Tiananmen], but somebody had to go,” says Mr Leung, who ventured to the capital in the summer of 1989, just months after his first child’s birth, to resume work on the Basic Law.
“Others had the luxury of not talking to Beijing. They did not have the responsibility of communicating with the Chinese government. We did and we still do.”