China’s President Hu Jintao has sworn in a new leader for Hong Kong, amid large public protests. The island is marking the 15th anniversary of its return to Chinese sovereignty at a time when mistrust toward China is at its highest level since Hong Kong’s handover in 1997.
Sunday morning began with the pomp of a flag-raising ceremony, and a fly-past by helicopters bearing the Hong Kong and national Chinese flags. Then Hong Kong’s new leader, self-made millionaire Leung Chun-ying, took his oath of office.
He gave his inaugural speech in Mandarin, the official language of China’s Communist rulers, which is not spoken by most locals.
“I will honor the pledges I have made to uphold justice, protect the rights of people, safeguard the rule of law, clean government, freedom and democracy which are Hong Kong’s core values,” He said. “At the same time, I myself will set an example of honesty and self-restraint to others.”
For his part, Hu warned against interference in Hong Kong’s affairs by foreign forces. He also drew attention to the challenges facing the next leader.
“We have to be aware of the fact that there remains deep conflicts and problems in Hong Kong society, which could affect Hong Kong’s long-term development over the next five years,” he said.
But China’s role in Hong Kong is increasingly unpopular. A survey by the University of Hong Kong shows that mistrust towards Beijing at a post-handover high of 37 percent. Meanwhile, another survey showed Hong Kong people identifying themselves primarily as Chinese citizens was at a 13-year low.
Hu’s trip has been highly stage-managed, with demonstrators largely being kept a distance. He was heckled as he began his speech Sunday morning, but the protester was removed. However, the only other spontaneous moment happened when a local reporter pressed him on the bloodshed of June 4, 1989.
“President Hu,” shouted out Rex Hon Yiu-ting from Apple Daily newspaper, “Have you heard Hong Kong people hope for a reappraisal of June the Fourth. Have you heard?”
There was no answer. The journalist was subsequently detained by police for 15 minutes, for being “too noisy.”
But Hong Kong’s public is making a noise, with tens of thousands taking to the streets for the annual July 1 protest march. There’s anger at the swelling wealth gap and fear at China’s growing influence.
According to one survey carried out by the South China Morning Post, almost two-thirds of respondents believed Hong Kong has become a worse place since the handover 15 years ago.
Colonial nostalgia was evident at Sunday’s protest, with one sign reading, “The queen made us the Pearl of the Orient. But the party has ruined it.”
Small clusters of young people waved flags dating back from Hong Kong’s period as a British colony. Twenty-year-old Marco Wong wrapped himself in one.
“This flags represents what we want. This is not an ultimate goal … going back to being British,” he says. “However, what we missed out, we want it back. We were just 5, 6-years-old when we lost it.”
Not all feel this way. Among the protesters, many are pursuing their own causes. But there are widespread calls for the resignation of new leader Leung. He was chosen after his main contender, civil servant Henry Tang, fell into disgrace following a scandal involving an illegally built basement at his house.
Leung vowed he himself had followed the law — but it’s now emerged he has six illegal structures at his $64 million luxury house. He’s a surveyor by trade.
“I think he’s a liar. He is a liar. That’s all,” says 20-year-old Mei Tong, who is livid.
Legislator Albert Ho from the Democratic Party is trying to mount a court challenge against Leung. This may seem like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. But Ho himself made a doomed bid for the top job and feels it is his responsibility to act.
“That is the spirit of Hong Kong and Hong Kong people,” Ho says. “We must have the courage to speak truth to power. One day, if we are found to have lost such courage — to speak truth to power — the value of Hong Kong could no longer be protected.”
Sunday was an outpouring of emotion. The hurly-burly of Hong Kong’s street politics was a stark contrast to the highly controlled program followed by China’s president. As tens of thousands marched through the streets in protest, the plaintive message was clear: Mr. President, are you hearing our voices now?