Friday, March 30, 2012

China's Quiet "Invasion"

Hong Kong held two elections over the past weekend. One on Friday drew more than 200,000 voters to several polling places. The second one on Sunday involved fewer than 2,000 electors in one location. Only the second one counted.

Three people were vying to become Hong Kong’s third Chief Executive since the former British Crown Colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Only two of them had a chance of winning. The victor, Leung Chun-ying garnered 689 of the 1,132 votes cast by the territory’s Election Committee. He takes office July 1.

The same three candidate names appeared on the ballots of a mock election held two days earlier and organized by the Hong Kong University to demonstrate the need for more direct elections. In this instance “none of the above” (technically blank ballots) won 55 percent of the votes, an indicator of how the general population viewed both the candidates and the election process.

It has been fifteen years since handover, and the territory has made relatively little progress toward a more open and democratic government. Half of the 60-member legislature is directly elected by universal suffrage. But the Chief Executive is still chosen every five years by an electoral college made up mainly of tycoons.

The previous two “selections” since the contested first one in 1996  had been quiet, uneventful ratifications of a candidate acceptable to Beijing and to the territory’s generally pro-Beijing business classes and the civil service. This year’s establishment candidate, Chief Secretary Henry Tang, had the usual attributes for electoral success in Hong Kong.

He was, as Chief Secretary, the territory’s highest-ranking civil servant (like his predecessor Donald Tsang). He came from the upper business classes, as his family owned a textile concern. He even born in had roots in Shanghai, usually a valuable attribute with the rulers in Beijing.

Unfortunately, Tang got into trouble when local newspapers uncovered how he had lavished millions on building an apparently illegal luxury complex under his estate. His clumsy management of this scandal evidently shook Beijing’s confidence in him. In the latter days Beijing made known its preference for Leung through such means as flattering profiles in pro-Beijing newspapers. The committee members got the message.

Many segments of Hong Kong population have reasons to be uneasy with the new Chief. The city’s property tycoons worry that Leung’s call for building more public housing will cut into their profitable real estate holdings. Democrats and people who fret about civil liberties think Leung is a closet communist who may try to curtail Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Strange as it may seem the Chinese Communist Party is still banned (or more accurately not specifically made legal) in Hong Kong. Under the concept “one country, two systems” the territory sends delegates to the National People’s Congress, a government organ, but not the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, at least not officially.

The election was held against a backdrop of tensions and irritations that are running higher than at any time since the 1997 handover. Increasing numbers of people are taking to the streets in protest, not just for greater democracy, a common goal in the past, but other issues, especially the fast growing income divide and ballooning property  prices.

Since the handover, and especially since Beijing permitted Chinese people to visit Hong Kong as individuals instead of in tour groups, the two Chinese peoples, Hong Kongers and mainlanders, have been getting on each other’s nerves. This is especially true as mainland Chinese are becoming richer.

Some of the incidents, fairly trivial in themselves, have taken on outsized meaning. A couple months ago the Italian luxury garment retailer Dolse & Gabbana opened a smart new retail shop on busy Canton road in Kowloon. It got into trouble when the management forbid locals from taking pictures of the window displays while allowing Chinese tourists to do so. More than 1,000 people gathered outside the store to protest.

Another irritation is the large numbers of pregnant Chinese women coming into the territory to have  “anchor babies” in the territory, taking up limited hospital space. Last year some 40,000 Chinese women gave birth in Kong Hong. One Hong Kong woman said she is afraid to get pregnant since she isn’t sure she could find a bed in a Hong Kong hospital.

Some 40 percent of real estate transactions are now said to involve mainland buyers, helping boost the profits of landlords but pricing average Hong Kong people, especially those in the “sandwich class” (too well off for public housing, too poor to buy apartments) out of the market. Locals find that their favorite noodle shop has closed to make way for a store selling imported watches for the Chinese tourist trade.

“Wealthy mainland tourists have spoiled big businesses so much that they don’t even realize they are stepping over the line and discriminating against locals,” says Hong Kong commentator Alice Poon.

Adding to this is the now notorious “locusts” ad published in the territory’s leading Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily. The full page advertisement showed a huge locust, presumably representing mainland Chinese, perched on a mountain top overlooking Hong Kong with the word, “Hong Kong people have had enough.”

Hong King people have a patronizing term, ah choon that they often applied to new immigrants from mainland China derived from a bumpkin-like character in a popular television series. It was illustrative of the way Hong Kongers looked down on their poorer mainland “compatriots” in the years immediately preceding and after the 1997 handover.

With the growing prosperity on mainland China and Beijing’s decision to permit individuals to visit the territory as individuals, friction has increased, especially as tourists flaunt their wealth and buy up real estate, helping to inflate property prices. They still consider mainlanders country bumpkins, only rich country bumpkins.


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