Whether those were real or crocodile tears that Leung Chun-ying (almost) shed last week, the emotional moment could very well mark his fate as a soon-to-be former chief executive of Hong Kong.

Before Leung’s multitude of detractors start dancing in the streets, however, they should consider the very real possibility that, post-Leung, Hong Kong affairs could actually get a lot worse.

Following last week’s damning revelations in the Yuen Long housing fiasco, Leung’s future, always problematic, could indeed be doomed. One must now question whether he should even bother to run for reelection.

On the surface, Leung’s quasi breakdown at a press conference called to clear the befuddling haze over the government’s massive scale-down of the Wang Chau public housing project was all about his frustrations as a CE who has made increasing the city’s housing supply, in both the public and private sectors, a high priority. But maybe the sudden meltdown ran much deeper.

Sitting next to his stone-faced, unannounced rival for Hong Kong’s top job, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah—if you listened carefully, you could hear Tsang’s teeth grinding as Leung denied any rift between the two—the chief executive surely sensed that this could be the end of the line for him.

Leung Chun-ying and John Tsang. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

He had spent a week rhetorically dodging and darting around the blame for the highly suspect decision to downsize dramatically a plan to build 17,000 public housing units on a 33-hectare brownfield site occupied by car parks, garages and storage facilities owned by businessmen under the protection of the powerful rural advisory body, the Heung Yee Kuk.

Newly elected New Territories West lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, alleging collusion between government officials and the businessmen involved—including Ping Shan Rural Committee chairman Tsang Shu-wo, who owns one of the car parks—has demanded that Leung and other officials explain why only 4,000 units were eventually approved on a nearby greenfield site that will require the destruction of three villages and the displacement of those who live there.

Banners calling for the conservation of Wang Chau greenbelt. Photo: Stanley Leung/HKFP.

Initially, Leung skirted responsibility for the decision and tried, inartfully, to shift the blame to the financial secretary and also to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, widely considered to be another potential Leung rival in the next CE election in March.

Tsang’s office flatly denied that he had any role in the Wang Chau development plan, and Lam was also careful to distance herself from what was fast becoming, thanks in part to Leung’s repeated evasions, a scandal.

Finally, at last week’s excruciatingly awkward press conference, Leung admitted that he alone was responsible for the Wang Chau decision, although he denied being influenced by business interests associated with the Kuk—which, damningly in this instance, has been about the only consistent source of support Leung has received during his term as CE.

It was a terrible day in a terrible week for Leung. If you add the Wang Chau debacle to the nearly five years of heightened political tension and allegations of corruption under his watch—years that have witnessed a 79-day, pro-democracy occupation of key parts of the city, a nasty riot in Mong Kok, the rise of localism and its accursed offspring, separatism, and an investigation into an undeclared HK$50 million deal that Leung struck with Australian engineering and property services firm UGL prior to becoming chief executive in 2012—his position has gone beyond vulnerable to virtually untenable.

Of course, ultimately it is up to the powers that be in Beijing to determine his future, but Leung’s bosses to the north cannot be happy about his ham-fisted mishandling of the Wang Chau development or his alarming lack of public support in general. It could be time to cut off Leung’s life support and give another star-crossed candidate Hong Kong’s poisoned chalice of leadership.

While the political demise of Leung would be an occasion for unfettered celebration for the myopic ABC (Anyone by CY) crowd, their anti-Leung antipathy has always been more emotional than logical. Those who dance on Leung’s grave may soon find themselves buried in a bigger mess.

Leung has been a singularly combative and divisive CE, so it’s easy to scapegoat him for all of Hong Kong’s many problems and to hold out the Pollyannaish hope that a change of leadership will save the city, bringing harmony and prosperity.

The three generations of chief executives: Tung

But Leung’s ouster is not the solution to the angry funk Hong Kong finds itself in nearly 20 years after the handover from British to Chinese rule. Remember, our first two post-handover leaders, Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, also left office as deeply unpopular figures who, like Leung, failed to find a workable balance in the “one country, two systems” formula that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy and unique identity as a special administrative region of China.

Tung was compelled to resign his office following a 500,000-strong street protest, and Tsang barely survived, leaving under a cloud of corruption charges for which he will stand trial in January.

Don’t expect John Tsang, Carrie Lam or anyone else Chinese leaders deem acceptable as CE to have any more success.

Hong Kong’s most popular and able politician, outgoing Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, touted as yet another potential CE candidate come March, has said he doesn’t want the job because it requires serving “two bosses”—the Hong Kong people and the leadership in Beijing—whose interests can be irreconcilable.

Until that impossible formula changes, there will be more trouble and further crises for Hong Kong, no matter who occupies Government House.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.