Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Hong Kong at 15

It was something of a shock to see that some of the protestors in last week’s big demonstration in Hong Kong were carrying the old British colonial flag with the Union Jack in the corner, What was running through the minds of the bearers? Nostalgia for the frmer colonial masters?
That seemed unlikely. More likely it was a gesture of contempt. After all, what better way to take a poke at Beijing than to display the banner of the former colonialists. China officially views Britain’s 140-year rule as a period of unremitting misery and oppression.

It is supremely ironic that July 1, the date in 1997 when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, a date that is supposed to be time of  joyful celebration of reunion with the motherland, has become a traditional time for rallying protests against the government and Beijing. The fact that it is a holiday only enhances the turnout.

Hong Kong is in a bad mood. This year’s demonstration was the largest since the epic turnout in 2003 to protest implementation of new laws against sedition that the majority thought would erode Hong Kong’s promised post-1997 liberties under the “one-country, two systems” formula in which Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty.

It came on the heels of a sizeable turnout one year ago, which was aimed specifically at the widening income gap in the territory, which has become the widest in Asia. Participation in the annual June 4 commemoration of the Tiananmen crackdown is also said to be increasing the number of participants after languishing on the years immediately after the handover.

Demonstrations, like the one this month, along with public opinion polls take on out-sized importance in Hong Kong since there are few other practical ways to make their voices heard. Beijing can’t like the messages: Aside from the massive demonstration, recent polls show that two-thirds of the people think Hong Kong is worse off now than it was fifteen years ago.

The political system is still frozen in time. Half of the 60-member legislature is hchosen by small special interest groups, such as lawyers or accountants. The Chief Executive is selected by a 1,200-member election committee made up mainly of business leaders and others considered safely in Beijing’s corner. Direct election of the chief by 2017 is only a vague promise.
It is difficult to point to any specific area where Beijing has reneged on its promises made to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy and liberties fifteen years after the handover. The demonstration itself was a kind of proof, as it included elements, such as the Falungong, that are banned outright in China but tolerated in Hong Kong.

Nor was the demonstration really targeted at any specific Chinese leader, despite headlines saying that they were directed at the brief appearance in Hong Kong of China’s president Hu Jintao to swear in the new Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying. Hu left before the rally took place, and it seems doubtful that the tens of thousands took to the streets out of any personal animosity.

One of the ironies of the fifteen years since 1997 is that China’s leaders have usually ranked higher in public opinion polls than Hong Kong’s own leaders. That was especially true with premier Win Jiabao, who, unlike the stiff president, has something of the common touch.

The symbolism and modalities of the Fifteenth anniversary visit however, hardly contributed to underscoring confidence. Hu inspected elements of the People’s Liberation Army based in the territory rather than any other more local or popular venues (in a visit a few years ago Wen had visited a shopping mall.)
The new chief himself gave his acceptance speech in Mandarin, the  language of Beijing that relatively few people in Hong Kong can understand, the native tongue being Cantonese. That seemed only to underscore the popular view that Leung is a closet communist (the communist party is unlawful in Hong Kong even today).

Leung was the surprise winner in the “selection” contest earlier this year after the presumed successor. to outgoing chief Donald Tsang, Chief Secretary Henry Tang, lost Beijing’s confidence for his handling of a housing scandal. (Yet in recent weeks Leung himself has been accused of making illegal additions to his Victoria Peak mansion.)

Leung has promised, without making many specifics, to tackle the largest irritants affecting Hong Kong’s foul mood these days, especially the rising price of housing. He has also promised to do something about another irritant, the number of mainland women who are taking up hospital space to have their babies in the territory and thus secure for them the right to live there.
Many of the complaints that the locals have against mainland China stem from what was actually designed to be a boon to Hong Kong’s recovery from the Asian Financial Crisis that hit shortly after the handover ceremony. Beijing permitted individual Chinese to visit Hong Kong as tourists rather than having to come in tour groups.

That move was hailed in the early days, but as China has prospered more and more affluent Chinese have been coming to the territory flaunting their wealth and jacking up the rents for local store keepers that has faded. The popular newspaper Apple Daily ran an infamous full page advertisement last year labeling them as “locusts.”

Moreover, wealthy Chinese are snapping up Hong Kong real estate (not necessarily to live in), contributing to the enormous rise in property prices. Once again one hears about the “sandwich class” of middle-class Hong Kongers squeezed (“sandwiched”) by being too well off to quality for public housing and too poor to buy apartments for themselves.

All of this presents a serious challenge to Hong Kong’s third native Chief Executive, and one who starts off with a considerable amount of baggage in the eyes of many of Hong Kong’s 7 million people. But if he can begin to make a dent in the things that are bugging people, Hong Kongers may be willing to forgive him a few speeches in Mandarin.

Todd Crowell is the author of Farewell, My Colony: Last Years in the Life of British Hong Kong.


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