Just hours after Chinese President Hu Jintao swore-in Leung Chun-ying as Hong Kong’s new chief executive, tens of thousands of residents took to the streets on the 15thanniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule. Whether you believe the organizers, who claimed there were 400,000 marchers in the scorching heat, or the police, who estimated the crowd at 63,000 at its peak, the turnout for the annual demonstration was the biggest in eight years, much higher than expected. Protestors wanted Leung, in office just hours, to resign.
That’s a bad sign for the territory’s new leader. “This is a political crisis for Leung,” said Ivan Choy of Chinese University in Hong Kong to the South China Morning Post. “I don’t see anywhere else in the world where so many have taken to the street on the first day a government comes into office.” A banner headline in the Chinese-language Apple Daily News blared, “Leung Chun-ying Becomes a Lame Duck.”
Opinion polling conducted by Hong Kong University on the eve of his inauguration put Leung’s popularity at 51.5 percent, down 4.2 percent from the previous month. Almost 40 percent said they did not trust the Hong Kong government.
There are many grievances in Hong Kong at the moment. For one thing, Leung, a building surveyor by profession, has yet to give an adequate explanation for maintaining an illegal structure in his magnificent home on Victoria Peak. Of greater significance is resentment caused by the lack of public housing; grievances caused by a widening wealth gap; and disgust following a string of petty scandals engulfing leading political figures, including Donald Tsang, Leung’s predecessor, and Henry Tang, Leung’s principal opponent in the chief executive contest.
Leung’s biggest problem, however, is that he lacks legitimacy. He was chosen for the post in an “election” by a 1,200-person committee whose members are loyal to Beijing. By now, the seven million people in Hong Kong want to pick their own leaders. China has promised that there will be universal suffrage for the next chief executive election in 2017 and for the 2020 election for the territory’s legislature.
There is widespread skepticism that Beijing will honor that particular pledge. The Communist Party can ill afford democratic governance in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong when it denies political participation elsewhere in the People’s Republic of China. The only answer Hu Jintao had on Sunday was a call for unity. “People from different social groups and sectors in Hong Kong,” he said, “should bear in mind the overall interests, follow the call of loving the motherland and loving Hong Kong, work for the broadest unity, wholeheartedly support the new SAR government in effectively administering Hong Kong pursuant to law, and increase the cohesion of the Hong Kong society.”
Hong Kong people are not expressing their love for the motherland’s government these days. Anti-Beijing sentiment has surged to a high since the “handover” 15 years ago, but it is even worse than that. A recent Hong Kong University poll showed only 37 percent of Hong Kong residents were proud to be citizens of the People’s Republic, the lowest result since 2001.
Moreover, only 16.6 percent of Hong Kong residents identified themselves first as Chinese citizens according to a survey conducted in December 2011 by Hong Kong University. That was the lowest reading on the issue since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 “in a blaze of patriotic fervor.” Beijing has attacked the poll, but the message is clear. The People’s Republic of China is losing hearts and minds in Hong Kong.
Hu Jintao, for the moment, does not have to worry about any of this. He left Hong Kong on Sunday just before the massive street protest began. Leung, on the other hand, is not so lucky. On Monday, his first full day in office, he had to flee a meeting in a community hall, bundled off by police out the back door when demonstrators took over the event.