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Tens of thousands of protesters took to Hong Kong’s streets in a largely peaceful demonstration hours after incoming Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying pledged to do more to address poverty and boost public housing.
As many as 112,000 people marched in the hours after Leung, 57, was sworn in early yesterday at the same venue used to mark the end of British rule 15 years ago, the University of Hong Kong estimated, according to the South China Morning Post.
“Everyone in our community should be able to share in the fruits of our economic development,” Leung said, pledging to set up a task force on poverty. “We need to provide more public housing and assist low-income groups to secure flats.”
As Hong Kong’s third chief executive, Leung must tackle Asia’s biggest wealth gap, now the worst since records started in 1971, and demands for direct leadership elections by 2017. At the same time, China aims to bind the city’s economy more closely to the mainland’s and maintain stability ahead of its own once-a-decade leadership transition this year.
After Leung spoke, addressing guests in Mandarin rather than the Cantonese dialect used in the city, Chinese President Hu Jintao said Hong Kong should expand ties with the mainland and resolve “deep-rooted” conflicts.
The demonstrators turned out to draw attention to issues ranging from the wealth gap and human rights in China to demands for a higher minimum wage. Police put the number of protesters at 55,000, while organizers estimated that 400,000 people marched, the most since the same date in 2003 when half a million took to the streets against then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s plans to impose an anti-subversion law.
Leung also begins his term facing a challenge to his authority. The Democratic Party says Leung misled the public about illegal structures built at his home.
“We have 400,000 people marching yesterday and that number stunned a lot of people,” Democratic Party lawmaker Emily Lau told Bloomberg Television today. “It showed that there is widespread concern and also people do not trust him and many people think that he should not be chief executive.”
About 70 percent of 529 people surveyed by the University of Hong Kong on June 25-26 said perception of Leung’s integrity was negatively impacted by the findings. A bid by former chief secretary Henry Tang to become Hong Kong’s next leader was derailed after an illegal basement was found at his wife’s property.
Leung’s plans “for Hong Kong’s economy and livelihood will be affected by these personal issues,” said Joseph Wong, visiting professor in public administration at City University of Hong Kong. “He has to reduce these doubts as soon as possible otherwise they could cause him a lot of trouble over the next few months.”
The latest allegations may make it more difficult for Leung to restore the public’s trust in the city’s leadership after his predecessor, Donald Tsang, acknowledged taking trips on yachts and planes owned by billionaire businessmen. He must also win over tycoons including Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man and founder of Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd. (1), who had supported Tang for the chief executive position.
Protesters sang and waved flags as they marched from Victoria Park in the city’s Causeway Bay district toward the headquarters of the government. Some demanded an investigation into the death of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang, who was found dead in a hospital ward in the city of Shaoyang last month.
“People from all social classes are frustrated,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. “People are not happy with the wealth gap, absence of democracy and Leung’s lack of integrity.”
Some protesters chanted for Leung to step down, while others asked for an increase in the city’s minimum wage, and policies to improve living standards, address soaring property prices and protect freedom of speech. Traffic was stalled by the march.
“C.Y. has to address Hong Kong’s people needs urgently to gain our trust,” said Gavin Chan, 36, a teacher at a public school, who was on the streets with his wife and four-year-old daughter. “Soaring home prices is a headache. The middle class faces the pressure of making ends meet.”
Property prices have advanced more than 80 percent since the start of 2009, according to data compiled by Centaline Property Agency, making Hong Kong the world’s most expensive place to own a home.
Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, has gained from 0.43 in 1971 to 0.537 in 2011, according to government statistics. A reading of zero means income equality and one complete inequality.
“There still exists much deep-rooted conflict and issues in the society,” Hu said yesterday in his speech.
While Leung was elected by a 1,193-member panel comprised of billionaires, lawmakers and professionals, he campaigned on a promise to deliver change for the people.
“I will spare no effort to carry out my election platform and lead Hong Kong in seeking change while preserving stability,” Leung said.
The average gross household income of the poorest 10 percent of Hong Kong’s population fell to HK$2,170 ($280) in 2011 from HK$2,590 in 2001, according to a June 18 report from the Census and Statistics Department. The comparable income for the richest 10 percent advanced to HK$137,480 a month from HK$122,740.
Hu “wants the new government to work with the community and deal with the deep-rooted problems,” said Bernard Chan, who was appointed yesterday as a government adviser to Leung’s executive council. “ From what he said, it seems like the problems can’t be resolved easily.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Crystal Chui in Hong Kong at email@example.com; Michelle Yun in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org
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