Hong Kong: Hours after Chinese President Hu Jintao anointed Leung Chun-ying as Hong Kong`s new leader, tens of thousands on Sunday turned up on streets to protest 15 years of Chinese rule.
With Hong Kong being the only place in China where protests are legal, residents marched to protest against Beijing on the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China from Britain.
The protests are sort of an annual occasion for ordinary people to air their grievances over a range of issues. The yearly event began in 2003, when half a million people turned out to protest anti-subversion legislation that was later shelved. The huge number shocked China`s authoritarian leaders, who are obsessed with maintaining control.
Hong Kongers are upset over widening inequality and lack of full democracy in the semiautonomous southern Chinese financial centre.
Urging the new leader to resolve the tensions and “disagreements” Hu Jintao said, "While we recognise Hong Kong`s achievements 15 years after the handover, we must also be conscious of the deep disagreements and problems in Hong Kong society."
Hu expressed China`s confidence in Hong Kong`s role as a free, law-abiding society, though, in a sign of Beijing`s anxiety over recent tensions, he appealed for unity and called on the new administration to pursue social harmony.
Hu was interrupted by a lone heckler who was wrestled away by 10 security guards. The man, one of the guests invited to the inauguration, waved a small flag and yelled slogans calling for China`s leaders to condemn the brutal June 04, 1989, crackdown on protesters in Beijing`s Tiananmen Square. He also called for an end to one-party rule in China before security agents swiftly pounced. Hu took no notice and continued to read his speech, but the incident marred what was supposed to be a carefully orchestrated visit emphasizing strengthening ties between Hong Kong and mainland China.
Leung, a 57-year-old police officer`s son and self-made millionaire, replaces career bureaucrat Donald Tsang, who took office in 2003 and is barred from another term.
Leung takes over Hong Kong`s top job amid swelling public anger over a yawning income gap, skyrocketing property prices and rising unease about mainland China`s growing influence on the semiautonomous region.
Leung was chosen as chief executive in March, winning 689 votes from a 1,200-seat committee of business elites who mostly voted according to Beijing`s wishes. Hong Kong`s 3.4 million registered voters, who can vote for neighbourhood councillors and half of all lawmakers, had no say.
Calls for democracy have been catalysed by the way in which Leung got his job and by corruption scandals surrounding his predecessor. Ordinary Hong Kongers fear that the political system in place since July 01, 1997 has resulted in the city`s billionaire tycoons having too much influence on senior government officials.
Beijing has pledged that Hong Kong could elect its own leader in 2017 and all legislators by 2020 at the earliest, but no road map has been laid out.
In mid-afternoon, tens of thousands of protesters began marching toward the newly-built government headquarters complex on Hong Kong island, beating drums and waving British colonial flags in a gesture of nostalgia for an era during which democratic rights were limited but the rule of law was firmly in place.
In his speech, Hu said Hong Kong residents now have more democratic rights and freedoms than ever before — a reminder that China has largely kept the promise it made when it regained the territory from Britain to keep Hong Kong`s relatively open political system in place for 50 years.
Leung takes office with an approval rating far lower than his predecessors, making it tougher for him to push through reforms he has promised to even out Hong Kong`s inequality. He has promised measures such as increasing the supply of affordable housing and has also set up an anti-poverty commission.
Leung has also become a target for residents` discontent because of his plummeting popularity following a scandal over illegal additions to his mansion.
Some in Hong Kong fear that Leung is an underground member of China`s Communist Party because he was named to lead a committee helping to draft the Basic Law, Hong Kong`s mini-Constitution that would take effect on July 01, 1997, while still in his early 30s. Leung denies that and said his volunteer activities helping to develop China`s land use rights following the country`s economic reform that began in 1978 earned him a good reputation with Chinese leaders.
Inequality in Hong Kong has widened to the most in four decades, according to government data. Property prices have skyrocketed, which many blame on rich mainland Chinese buying up apartments.
(With Agency Inputs)