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.

“They are critical about the collusion between government and big business and they are worried about the declining international economic competitiveness of the territory.”

Increasingly residents in Hong Kong are identifying themselves as Hong Kong citizens, rather than Chinese citizens.

A poll this month by Hong Kong University showed that 37 per cent of Hong Kongers distrust Beijing, the highest since the handover.

This feeling will not have been helped by a Bloomberg report that revealed close relatives of China’s anointed supreme leader, Xi Jinping, own millions of euro worth of holdings in a number of companies, and also own expensive assets, including one in Hong Kong’s Repulse Bay area.

Tomorrow sees the annual pro-democracy march, which starts at Victoria Park and ends at the Hong Kong government office in Admiralty.

Organisers expect an even greater turnout than last year’s 200,000.

Another big issue is the suspicious death of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang. The nearly deaf and blind activist is supposed to have hanged himself, and was found dead in his hospital room in the central Chinese city of Shaoyang. Li spent more than 22 years in jail after taking part in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and over the past few weeks there have been protests in Hong Kong demanding Beijing investigate the circumstances of his death.

Organisers are planning a separate rally for today which will include presenting Hu with a petition demanding information about what happened to Li. Chances of getting any details are slim.

Closeness to mainland China has done much to prop up the Hong Kong economy and help it compete with regional rivals like Singapore or even Shanghai.

In the run-up to the visit, the Beijing government dangled several carrots before the Hong Kong people, including measures to promote Hong Kong’s status as a centre for offshore finance using the mainland’s tightly controlled currency, the yuan.

It promised to encourage closer trade, travel and investment links.

People are aware of the manner in which greater integration with the world’s second-biggest economy has helped Hong Kong retain its status as a global financial hub, but many residents feel marginalised.

On the streets of Hong Kong you encounter irritation at the influx of mainland visitors shopping up a storm. The strength of the mainland yuan currency gives them huge buying power.

This has also made itself felt in the Hong Kong property market, where mainlanders have fuelled a property boom that is approaching, or has gone beyond, bubble proportions.

According to data from the Centaline agency, property prices in Hong Kong swept past the previous record set in 1997.

Others are angry at the number of mainlanders who come to give birth, ensuring residency for their children. Increasingly you hear Mandarin Chinese, the dialect spoken in Beijing and the North, spoken on the streets of Hong Kong, where the lingua franca is – or is supposed to be – Cantonese.