Nation & World

New wrinkle in Hong Kong: Leader was paid millions by Australian firm

The loyalties of Hong Kong’s besieged chief executive are coming under question again after it was disclosed Wednesday he’d received $6.4 million from an Australian engineering and development firm with interests in Hong Kong and Chinese real estate.

An Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, reported Wednesday that Leung Chun-ying, also known as C.Y. Leung, had received the payments in exchange for providing contacts and other information to the Australian company, UGL, which had acquired the Hong Kong company for which Leung worked, DTZ Holdings.

The payments were made after Leung became Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2012, but weren’t disclosed; The Sydney Morning Herald reported that UGL and Leung’s office said they weren’t required to report the payments, which were triggered by Leung’s departure from DTZ to take up his current post.

Nonetheless, the disclosures amped up calls in Hong Kong for Leung to step down, a key demand of the protesters who’ve occupied three locations in the city for nearly two weeks.

A top Hong Kong lawmaker told McClatchy that the city’s Legislative Council was sure to launch an inquiry and might even use its powers to seek Leung’s ouster. “There’s a possibility of bringing an impeachment motion,” Alan Leong, a member of the council, said in an interview Wednesday.

Another lawmaker, Claudia Mo Man-ching, said in a speech Wednesday that legislators sympathetic to the current round of protests would start the impeachment process against Leung.

The disclosure about the payments to Leung may also boost the protests, whose attendance has sagged in recent days. “I think this will just confirm the view (of student protesters) that his administration is very corrupt,” said Leong, 56, who leads Hong Kong’s Civic Party.

The chief executive offered no direct response to the newspaper’s report, but his spokesman Michael Yu defended Leung, saying the payments were related to past, not future, service on behalf of UGL.

“The payments therefore arise from Mr. Leung’s resignation from DTZ, not any future service to be provided by him,” Yu was quoted as saying in the newspaper account.

Like many of Hong Kong’s elite, Leung built his fortune on real estate, rising through the ranks of a local company, James Lang Wootton, and then starting his own surveying business. Along the way, he built strong ties with China, becoming an adviser to the cities of Shenzhen, Tianjian and Shanghai in privatizing their land holdings.

Leung became the chief executive in 2012 after receiving 689 of the votes cast by the city’s election committee, a group of 1,200 Hong Kong residents, many them loyal to Beijing. In his inaugural address, he surprised many Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers by speaking in Mandarin, the language of mainland China, becoming the first chief executive to do so.

The payments to Leung apparently were part of UGL’s agreement to purchase DTZ, where Leung was a director and the chairman of its Asia Pacific operations.

Under a contract dated Dec. 2, 2011, before Leung was elected to his current position, the Australian company recognized that “DTZ Holdings’ prospects depended on Leung’s network of managers and clients in Hong Kong and mainland China” and it provided for the payment, the newspaper said. The payment was made in 2012 and 2013, after Leung became chief executive in July 2012.

UGL told the Morning Herald it had no legal obligation to report the payments. Hong Kong legal experts McClatchy contacted said they couldn’t immediately comment on whether disclosure was required.

According to DTZ’s website, the company operates in 16 mainland Chinese cities, including Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. “Together with its Hong Kong and Taipei offices, it is the largest and longest established real estate advisory firm in this fast growing market,” the website says.

UGL, by contrast, has done some rail projects in Hong Kong but is just starting to break into the Chinese market, according to its website and industry analysts.

Hong Kong’s protests will reach the two-week mark Friday. They were sparked by Beijing’s decision to have an election committee vet candidates to run in the 2017 election to replace Leung.

Small-scale student protests grew to mass demonstrations Sept. 28 when police fired tear gas against protesters. Government officials have since claimed that decision was made by a police commander, not by the chief executive.

Even so, Leung has become a target of vilification, with posters at protest sites depicting him as a vampire or a wolf. Many Hong Kongers suspect Leung is a member of China’s Communist Party, which he and his supporters deny.