Man, President Hu Jintao must hate crossing the Pearl River Delta and speaking in Hong Kong. These days, the residents of that super-city are not particularly well disposed toward their mainland cousins. And with real estate surveyor Leung Chun-Ying—perceived by many as a stooge for the Chinese Communist Party—now installed as chief executive, things could get messy. By RICHARD POPLAK
Chinese President Hu Jintao stands in a hall of 2,500 people and prepares to deliver a conciliatory message. He wants to assure the citizens of Hong Kong that China intends to maintain the clunky “one country, two systems” mandate that has existed since the handover of Hong Kong by the British in 1997. He wants to tell his fellow citizens that their civil liberties are safe and they should expect no rollback on their freedoms, such as those freedoms may be.
As he opens his mouth, a lone man stands and shouts at the president—something that happens not at all in Beijing. The protestor reminds Hu of “June 4”—a reference to Tiananmen Square—and suggests the CCP should consider introducing a democratic system of governance, something that is unlikely to have occurred to Hu. The protestor doesn’t get much further into his disquisition before he is hauled off and taken to a quiet, dark place to calm down. For the rest of his life.
The lone dissenter is less lonely than he appears in the hall crowded with sycophants. Outside, as Hu installs mega-rich real estate surveyor Leung Chun-Ying as chief executive of Hong Kong, thousands walk through the high-rise canyons, making their displeasure known. Hong Kong has become the most unequal society in Asia, partly because of the real estate “crisis” that has so enriched Leung and his peer group.
Wealthy mainlanders, in order to protect their money from taxation and political vendettas, have pumped billions into Hong Kong real estate. Consequently, locals can no longer afford to buy or rent in their own neighbourhoods. Illegal townships have sprung up, but Leung has vowed to wipe them out.
“A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” is how Leung’s (numerous) opponents have uncreatively described him, for Leung has never been much of a sheep. His major opponent in the run-up to the “elections” (more on this in a moment) was a gentleman named Henry Tang, leading light of a wealthy manufacturing clan, linked to the Shanghai faction that controls politics in the mainland. Tang was embroiled in controversy after controversy, most notable the fact that a basement was built under a home owned by his wife, without planning permission or the payment of taxes. That the same controversy recently landed at Leung’s doorstep—several illegal additions to his $64-million home have been reported—hasn’t passed the attention of the citizens of Hong Kong.
Neither has the fact that Leung gave his inaugural address in Mandarin, rather than the Cantonese traditionally spoken in the city-state. For a chief executive who claims to have no real ties to the mainland, using the language of the overlords across the China Sea has made many uneasy.
“The Government will uphold the core values of Hong Kong and protect the freedom and rights of the people,” read an official statement that has done little to calm the restiveness. “The chief executive and his team will honour their pledge to hold themselves accountable to the people. They will go to the districts to listen to people’s views and aspirations and work together with them to address the deep-rooted problems in a pragmatic manner, improve people’s livelihood and promote harmony and stability in society.” Good luck with that.
The citizens of Hong Kong are clamouring for more say in the day-to-day running of the special administration region (China has two, the other being Macau—also a playground for China’s ultra-wealthy.) The average man in the street never voted for Leung, because the average man in the street isn’t allowed to vote. The chief executive is chosen by an election committee of 1,200 members—Leung earned 689 votes, hardly a unanimous mandate. It’s not a situation that pleases too many a Hong Konger, and it leads to serious suspicions that the CE is under the thumb of Beijing, which has not been this unpopular on the island since the handover.
No one is entirely sure what is meant by “guaranteed freedom” in a place where they cannot vote for their leaders. Nor are they sure what “political and economic autonomy”—also guaranteed post-handover—actually counts for, when their CE is embroiled in the sort of sleaze that has a distinct mainland flavour. Beijing insists that Hong Kong will be able to elect its own leader in 2017, and all legislators by 2020, but there hasn’t been any serious movement on this. The status quo remains worryingly intact.
And that’s why tens of thousands of islanders have taken to the streets—many of them young, many of them angry. “Affluence isn't affluence at all,” wrote Jonathan Gash in The Jade Woman. “Hong Kong is the benchmark; everybody else's affluence is mere tat. Until you've experienced that perfume-washed air as polarized glass doors embrace you into a luxury hotel's plush interior, you've only had a dud replica of the real thing.”
All of that affluence is killing Hong Kongers. They want change, and it will be a historic moment if, and when, Beijing is willing to supply it. DM
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Photo: Chinese President Hu Jintao (C) sings with outgoing Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (L), upcoming Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying (R), actress Liza Wang and singer Jacky Cheung during a variety show in Hong Kong June 30, 2012, as part of celebrations ahead of the 15th anniversary of the territory's handover to Chinese sovereignty from British rule on Sunday. (REUTERS/Bobby Yip)