Family issues add to Hong Kong leader's public relations problems

Family issues add to Hong Kong leader's public relations problems
Leung Chai-yan, daughter of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, poses on the red carpet during the 2015 amfAR Hong Kong gala at Shaw Studios in Hong Kong on March 14. (Anthony Wallace / AFP/Getty Images)

It was almost like a scene out of a Disney movie, a princess-crying-in-a-castle shot. In this case, though, it was none other than the daughter of top Hong Kong official Leung Chun-ying, who was seen weeping on the balcony of a grand old colonial building in Hong Kong

For the semi-autonomous Chinese territory of 7.3 million, the episode one morning last week was akin to Sasha Obama sobbing on a White House portico — as an ambulance, paramedics and a horde of journalists waited outside the gates.


Even throughout the long series of pro-democracy protests last fall, when massive crowds took to the streets, China's central government in Beijing staunchly backed Leung. However, recurring personal controversies swirling around his second child, Leung Chai-yan, 23, have added to the chief executive's public relations problems.

Leung Chai-yan's lavish lifestyle — she often refers to herself as "Princess Chai-yan" — seems directly at odds with the national austerity campaign initiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Moreover, her erratic public outbursts have become increasingly frequent and serious, compounding the unresolved negative public sentiment toward her father left over from the protests.

The chief executive's approval rating sank to 39.6% in a University of Hong Kong poll this month, barely above his all-time low of 38.9% at the height of the protests in October.

Leung Chai-yan, a law student at the London School of Economics, wrote on Facebook in October, at the height of the protests, that Hong Kong taxpayers funded her expensive shopping sprees. That followed a June incident in which Leung and his wife flew to London to see their daughter after she posted photos of her cut and bleeding wrists.

Trouble surfaced again at an AIDS fundraiser during an Art Basel fair held in Hong Kong this month in which dozens of foreign celebrities and art world VIPs descended on the city. Swaying down the red carpet, her eyes drooping, some photographers yelled out, "Can you walk?"

The tabloids feasted on the spectacle at an event attended by Kate Moss, Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham and Robin Thicke. But even more fodder followed when Leung Chai-yan posted a flurry of erratic social media messages alleging verbal and physical abuse by her mother.

One, rife with profanities, claimed that her mother had accused her of "getting into bed with people," and "being a prostitute" and alleged that her mother had also pushed and slapped her.

After the balcony episode, emergency services confirmed that they had dispatched paramedics to the Leungs' residence but left without taking anyone to the hospital. Leung Chai-yan posted (and then deleted) an item saying she was being pressured to say she had changed her mind about wanting an ambulance.

In a news conference later, the chief executive denied that his daughter was held against her will or that anyone had been injured. He said his daughter was receiving treatment for emotional health issues.

The public airing of dirty laundry compounds problems for Leung, still facing public anger over the pace of democratic reforms and concern that livelihoods are being marginalized in favor of big businesses catering to mainland Chinese tourists.

Multiple protests against so-called "parallel traders" — mainland Chinese visitors who cross the border several times a day to buy goods in Hong Kong and resell them on mainland — have also kept Leung in the hot seat.

Last week, a leading opposition politician, Alan Leong, challenged Leung to a televised debate on political reform.

Tellingly, public sentiment seems to have turned in favor of Leung Chai-yan. Although she stirred immense ire with her comments about enjoying taxpayer-funded shopping sprees, support for her seems to have grown steadily as she rebels against her father.

After the balcony incident, a small crowd gathered outside the chief executive's mansion, Government House, holding signs asking for the police to investigate whether Leung Chai-yan had been abused. "Save Chai-yan! We are all Leung Chai-yan," read the placards.


Since then, it appears that Leung Chai-yan has left home, posting on Instagram to her more than 22,000 followers that she was on the move.

"Hate to admit I'm actually terrified inside. Running away. Skipping town," the post read. "Yes- irresponsible I know. This is crazy. Going somewhere alone I've never been before with just a small suitcase and a pair of flip-flops.#ByeHome #RunningAway #NoIdeaWhatImDoing#WhereIsLifeHeading."

Ap is a special correspondent.