By James Pomfret and Alex Frew McMillan
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's leader-elect Leung Chun-ying faces skepticism over his political skills to lead the global financial hub, after a divisive election victory at the weekend in which critics dubbed him a closet communist.
His reputation as a staunch supporter of Beijing has put in doubt expectations of direct elections for his post at the end of his five-year term in 2017, and raises the prospect of protests by democracy campaigners.
Leung has to keep Hong Kong, a city of seven million people on the South China Sea known as the financial gateway to China, on an even political keel as it competes with rivals such as Singapore.
"The political leader hasn't even officially taken office, and the people are already shouting for him to resign," Hong Kong's populist Apple Daily newspaper said in an editorial.
Leung beat a scandal-tainted rival, tycoon and former bureaucrat Henry Tang, in a contest on Sunday decided by a 1,200-member election committee of business professionals, tycoons and Beijing loyalists.
Leung appealed for unity as he moves to take office on July 1, though winning over public opinion will be tough for Hong Kong residents skeptical that China will allow the next election for a leader to be direct.
"We will work very hard to ensure that in the next few months, the transition will work well," said Leung a day after his win when he held meetings with Chinese officials in Hong Kong and the city's incumbent leader, Donald Tsang.
Beijing, whose leaders are due for their own watershed leadership transition late this year, said it wanted to see Leung "unify various sectors of the community in working together to build a better Hong Kong", according to the official Xinhua news agency, citing an anonymous State Council official.
Veteran Hong Kong politicians and media accused Leung of being a secret member of the Chinese Communist Party, which he strongly denied.
But political observers are still skeptical he will aggressively defend civil liberties the territory enjoys compared with China.
"Leung is cunning and is some kind of political chameleon," said James Sung, a political scientist. "He's someone who can always catch the Machiavellian moment."
Leung faces a list of problems in Hong Kong including high levels of pollution, soaring property inflation that has fueled a widening wealth gap and global economic headwinds.
But the issue of political freedom has stoked the most severe tests of Beijing's control of Hong Kong after the former British colony was returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula.
More than 500,000 people took to the streets in July 2003 in a show of discontent with government plans for a security bill that rights groups said threatened basic freedoms and was subsequently shelved. Leung has been non-committal on whether he'll try pushing through the bill again.
Leung, 57, is also said to lack governance experience and hasn't run a daily policy portfolio beyond a strategic advisory role on the executive council. Analysts say he lacks the trust of the financial community and civil service.
"He knows very little about the complexity and dynamic process of policy-making," said Sung. "Right now, he enjoys a very low popularity and that indicates that he could struggle to find talent and lead a rather weak government."
Among his first important decisions will be who to appoint to his cabinet, in particular the financial and chief secretaries.
TAKING ON THE TYCOONS?
The son of a policeman who made his millions in the property industry, Leung has called for more equitable housing policies and more land for building after years of slow development in the city.
He has said that "long-standing land and housing policies that make homes expensive and painfully small" should be overturned, pitting him against property tycoons like Li Ka-shing.
Under Hong Kong's first post-colonial leader, Tung Chee-hwa, Leung was blamed for pushing Tung's policy of building 85,000 housing units per year, which helped bring about a crash in the property market.
But Ronnie Chan, chairman of Hong Kong's fourth-largest developer by market value, Hang Lung Properties, doesn't expect him to revisit the 85,000 tally.
"I understand his real estate policy is a very sensible one," Chan said. "I believe he will supply land as necessary, and I expect real estate prices will be steady."
(Additional reporting by Sisi Tang; Editing by Ed Lane)