HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader, deeply unpopular because of his hard-line response to massive 2014 pro-democracy protests and an ensuing separatist movement, said Friday he won't seek another term in office, citing family reasons.
In a surprise announcement, Leung Chun-ying said he would step aside after his five-year term ends next June.
"If I run for the next term of the chief executive, I'm afraid my family will come under unbearable pressure in the coming months," he told reporters. "I must protect them."
Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper reported earlier in the day that one of his daughters has been in a hospital for a month.
"As a father, as a husband, I have a responsibility," said Leung, who has two other children. "In my family, my children only have one father, my wife only has one husband," he said, adding didn't want to say more publicly.
Leung, a divisive figure who was chosen by a panel of Beijing-friendly tycoons and other Hong Kong elites, is loathed because of the tough stance his government has taken against pro-democracy lawmakers, activists and supporters, as well as because of his ties to China's Communist leaders that many believe are deeper than his predecessors had.
His popularity has steadily dwindled since he took office. His approval rating stood at 23 percent in late November, according to Hong Kong University pollsters carrying out regular phone surveys of about 1,000 people. The error margin was 4 percentage points.
In 2014, Leung refused to negotiate with student pro-democracy activists who led protests occupying the Asian financial hub's streets for nearly three months. They demanded changes to the system that put Leung in office, but authorities did not back down. Police fired dozens of tear gas canisters in an attempt to disperse them, in a move that drew world headlines.
The response spawned a new wave of more radical political activists and helped pro-democracy lawmakers add three seats in recent legislative elections as anti-China sentiment swelled. Leung fought back with legal challenges against six who altered their oaths of office in apparent protests. While the government has won cases and disqualified two lawmakers advocating independence for the specially administered Chinese region, Hong Kong society has become more polarized.
Leung likely realized "support from Beijing has become doubtful," said Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor at City University of Hong Kong. Signs included local pro-Beijing establishment figures refusing to indicate support for Leung as well as reports circulating that some had criticized him in front of central government figures during visits to Beijing, Cheng said.
Leung said he had Beijing's full support and he would give his backing to whoever became the former British colony's next leader.
In Beijing, the Cabinet's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office issued a statement saying it felt "deep regret" at the news but respected Leung's decision.
As chief executive, Leung "deftly managed a series of major political and legal issues, and made vast contributions to the safeguarding of national sovereignty, security and development interests, as well as to Hong Kong's social and political stability," the statement said, quoting an unidentified spokesperson.
Leung's announcement came two days before the process to choose his successor gets underway. On Sunday, representatives of financial services, catering, real estate and accounting and other industry groups will vote for the 1,200 members of a panel set to pick the next leader in March.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.