15 years after China takeover, Hong Kong uneasy
HONG KONG (AP) — For thousands of Hong Kongers, this weekend's 15th anniversary of China's takeover of the semiautonomous territory isn't a moment to celebrate but a chance to air grievances from corruption scandals to human rights to a widening gap between rich and poor.
Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived here on Friday to install Hong Kong's new but already unpopular leader, whose swearing-in on Sunday's anniversary is expected to draw large-scale protests. Hu, surrounded by tight security, is unlikely to see them.
China has kept its promise to retain the freewheeling capitalist ways of the former British colony, but residents have grown increasingly uneasy about being ruled by the country's authoritarian leaders. Only 1,200 elites among Hong Kong's 7 million residents had the right to vote for their chief executive.
Many believe Beijing heavily influenced Leung Chun-ying's election, adding urgency to Hong Kongers' calls for full democracy. 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.
Demonstrators joining Sunday's annual pro-democracy march will also air grievances over scandals surrounding business leaders and government officials and recent cases of harsh treatment of dissidents on the mainland. Hong Kong's mini-constitution guarantees until 2047 a high degree of autonomy and Western-style civil liberties unseen on mainland China, including freedom of speech.
Thousands took to the streets earlier this month to demand a full investigation into the death of labor activist Li Wangyang, who was released last year after serving 20 years in prison. They doubt the official explanation that he hanged himself in mainland China, saying years of beatings and mistreatment had taken such a toll on his body that he would not have been able to kill himself that way.
There are several other irritants in the relationship. Hong Kongers are annoyed by an influx of wealthy mainland visitors shopping at luxury goods outlets, which has helped push up rents and drive out local businesses. Some are outraged by mainland Chinese women who come to Hong Kong to give birth, seeking prized Hong Kong residency for their children and a way around the mainland's one-child policy. Even little things like ads with simplified Chinese characters used on the mainland, rather than the complex ones used in Hong Kong, have drawn residents' ire.
While closer integration with the world's second-biggest economy has helped Hong Kong retain its status as a global financial hub, many residents feel marginalized.
"People are generally unhappy about the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and they are unhappy that the government can't do much about it," said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at City University of Hong Kong. "They are critical about the collusion between government and big business and they are worried about the declining international economic competitiveness of the territory."
Hu's visit coincides with a raft of measures aimed at boosting the city's economy that could help smooth over tensions. They include plans to launch a test zone in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, to experiment with looser restrictions on the yuan, China's tightly controlled currency.
But recent surveys highlight growing estrangement. In a poll this month by Hong Kong University researchers, 37 percent of Hong Kongers said they distrust Beijing, the highest since the handover on July 1, 1997.
Separately, the researchers found that the number of people identifying themselves as Chinese citizens is near a 13-year low. Far more call themselves Hong Kong citizens.
Hu later paid a visit to Hong Kong's People's Liberation Army Garrison in a rare show of China's military might broadcast live on local TV. If the Chinese president's inspection of ranks of soldiers, standing in front of helicopters and armored personnel carriers, is seen as an attempt to scare Hong Kongers away from Sunday's protest, it actually might end up galvanizing them.
Hong Kong takes pride in its reputation for being corruption-free and adhering to the rule of law, but those ideals have been put to the test by a series of scandals involving Leung, his predecessor and others.
Leung's troubles erupted this week after reports that his upscale home in an exclusive neighborhood on Victoria Peak had six illegal structures, including a small basement. The controversy drew comparisons with a similar scandal that derailed the campaign of Leung's rival for chief executive. Leading lawmakers and pundits have called the 57-year-old self-made millionaire a liar and demanded that he step down even before he takes office.
Leung apologized, saying he was "disappointed in myself." The structures were already there when he bought the house 12 years ago, he said, but local newspaper reports ran aerial photos to cast doubts on those claims.
Rumors that Leung is a secret member of the Chinese Communist Party, outlawed in Hong Kong during British rule, have added to Leung's woes. He has denied the allegation.
Leung's support rating has tumbled to 51.3 percent, according to another Hong Kong University poll this week. That makes him much less popular than the city's first two post-colonial leaders were when they took office, and means he'll have a tougher job carrying out his reform policies.
Leung has vowed to lower inequality with measures including more affordable housing, though he hasn't been as clear on plans to introduce full democracy.
"He's not starting his term under the best auspices, so it's going to be hard for him," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. "He will have to deliver if he wants to improve his rating in the opinion polls and be perceived as a real leader, but even before taking office he's in real difficulties, which is unprecedented."