Anniversary overshadowed by brewing scandal
Fifteen years after UK handover, there is much unhappiness in former colony about corruption
ON THE 15th anniversary of the handover of power from Britain, Chinese president Hu Jintao is in Hong Kong to install a new but already unpopular chief executive of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Covering the handover on July 1st, 1997, my task was to patrol the pubs of the Wanchai bar district and gauge public opinion about the transfer. What I discovered was a mixture of resignation, unhappiness and general concern that Hong Kong’s integrity would be undermined.
Since then, Hong Kong has retained much of the freedom that was promised within the context of its basic law mini-constitution, which guarantees until 2047 a high degree of autonomy and western-style civil liberties unseen on mainland China, including freedom of speech.
But 15 years on, there is serious unhappiness about issues such as corruption that the territory had worked hard to bring under control, but which have worsened since 1997.
Large-scale protests are planned for tomorrow’s swearing-in of Leung Chun-ying, in a sign of ongoing disaffection about Hong Kong’s widening rich-poor gap and lack of democracy.
On arriving, the official Xinhua news agency reported how Chinese leader Hu was “willing to work with the Hong Kong people from all walks of life” to draw up the “precious experiences” of the “one country, two systems” policy over the past 15 years for further development.
But there is a widespread belief in Hong Kong that Beijing orchestrated Leung’s election, fuelling louder calls for full democracy in the former crown colony.
Beijing has pledged that Hong Kong can elect its own leader in 2017 and all legislators by 2020 at the earliest, but no roadmap has been laid out.
As it stands, only 1,200 elite businesspeople of Hong Kong’s seven million people have the right to vote for their chief executive.
Leung’s popularity has tumbled since he was chosen in March, partially because everyone believes that he’s secretly a Communist Party member.
Also, there is a gasping sense of disbelief at reports that his plush home on The Peak – Hong Kong’s most exclusive address – has no fewer than six illegal structures, including a small basement.
His rival as chief executive, Henry Tang, who was then leading the polls, lost out to Leung over the exact same issue – an illegal basement – prompting many newspaper commentators to call on the 57-year-old self-made millionaire to step down before he takes office.
He has taken power on a reform platform, promising to cut the income gap and to build affordable housing, and improve access to education and medical services, but he is vague when it comes to answering questions about his plans for universal suffrage in China.
“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,” Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at City University of Hong Kong, told Reuters.