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September 25, 2017

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Leung's No. 1 task: establish trust

The installation of Leung Chun-ying on Sunday morning as Hong Kong's third leader since the 1997 handover was followed that afternoon by tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets calling on him to step down.

The juxtaposition of these two events reflects the deep-seated divisions in Hong Kong today, 15 years after the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty, with the territory's citizens enjoying rights and freedoms available nowhere else in China under the formula "one country, two systems."

The new chief executive, popularly known as "C.Y.," had won a bitterly contested election campaign with former Chief Secretary Henry Tang, who initially had the backing of Beijing as well as of the Hong Kong business community.

Unlike Tang, a prominent third-generation businessman, Leung, the son of a policeman, became a successful real estate surveyor through hard work. Not the socializing type, C.Y. preferred to stay at home and grow vegetables in his yard.

As a result, he is not well known in Hong Kong and is viewed with suspicion by many who believe that he is an underground Communist Party member — an allegation he has repeatedly denied.

Rising social tensions are a direct result of the growing gulf between the rich and poor, with the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, having reached a record high of 0.537, well above what is considered to be the danger level.

Ironically, the new chief executive, who grew up in a poor family and who has promised to fight for the underprivileged, in particular by providing low-cost housing, has become the target of protesters.

The immediate cause is a scandal over illegal structures in his house — structures that he had denied existed. He has since taken steps to remove them, including a car park cover and an unauthorized trellis.

Critics have turned the question of illegal structures into an integrity issue. However, the underlying reason for his low support level stems from suspicions that he is a communist, and that his assumption of office signifies China's real takeover of Hong Kong.

Although Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing agreed to keep the colonial government intact. The Chinese government knew of Hong Kong people's aversion to communism. After all, most came to Hong Kong as refugees from the communists or were the children of such refugees.

The first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was a shipping magnate whose family was close to Taiwan. The second, Donald Tsang, was a British-trained civil servant.

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