On the Streets of Hong Kong, a Vast Display of Discontent

Hong Kong marked the 15th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule and the inauguration of a new Chief Executive on July 1. Despite some spectacular fireworks, the mood was far from celebratory

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ALEX HOFFORD / EPA

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters take to the streets of Hong Kong on July 1, 2012

Inside the air-conditioned cool of the harbor-front convention center where the British formally handed back control of Hong Kong to China 15 years ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao swore in Leung Chun-ying as the city’s new top official, urging him to address social tensions and “accurately gauge public opinion.”

For a measure of public opinion, Leung didn’t have to wait long. A few hours later, after Hu had left the city following a tightly controlled three-day visit, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents gathered in a steaming Victoria Park for a march that gave full-throated voice to a host of grievances and hopes for change.

There is deep and growing unease in Hong Kong over a range of issues: from mistrust in both local and mainland leaders and a desire for full democracy to frustration at ever rising inequality and house prices. Anger at last month’s suspicious death of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang in central Hunan province had already brought tens of thousands to the city’s streets.

No surprise, then, that this year’s July 1 march — an annual event since 2003, when an estimated 500,000 people turned out to protest antisubversion legislation, among other issues — took on extra significance. And by anyone’s count — organizers claimed that 400,000 people turned out, the police said 63,000 — it was a huge display of a demand for change.

“I brought my daughter out here today to teach her democracy, so that she can learn that people can make a difference,” says teacher Raymond Chang. “I hope they can.” Protesters wore T-shirts depicting incoming Leung as a wolf (a nickname he was given during his campaign on account of people’s distrust of him) and held banners that said “Hong Kong at risk.” Some carried copies of this week’s TIME cover story (for Hong Kong, China and Taiwan), which asked: “Can Hong Kong Trust This Man?” They provided their own handwritten answers beneath.

(PHOTOS: Hong Kong: Anger and Protest as City Marks 15 Years Since Its Return to China)

In his speech at the convention center, Hu said Hong Kong never enjoyed the range of freedom that it does now and called for the city to enhance economic competitiveness and cultivate new political talent. But even within that secure, highly choreographed environment of Leung’s swearing-in, Hong Kong’s discontent was evident. As the Chinese President began speaking to around 2,300 dignitaries, a lone protester interrupted to demand an end to one-party dictatorship in China. Agence France-Presse reported that he was quickly surrounded and bundled away. The protester, a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party, was later released.

This was not the first incident to embarrass the Chinese leader. As Hu visited a cruise-terminal construction site the previous day, a local reporter shouted at him, from inside a press area, if Beijing knew that Hong Kong people desired justice over the 1989 massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square. Hu did not respond. The reporter — with the feisty Chinese-language publication Apple Daily — was wrestled away and briefly detained. The Hong Kong Journalists Association accused local police of “mainland policing in Hong Kong” and vowed to lodge a complaint. (A recent survey by the group found that 87% of journalists claim that access to information has been limited and obstruction of news coverage has risen in the past five years — a figure 29% higher than the results of a similar 2007 survey.)

(MORE: Q&A: Hong Kong’s New Leader Is a Divisive Figure but Aims to Build Bridges)

Although Hu said he wanted to “walk more” and “understand Hong Kongers’ lives and expectations better” ahead of his visit, overbearing security kept every aspect of his secretive itinerary off-limits. Police erected giant barricades at several locations to keep people at a distance. Officers scuffled with — and used pepper spray against — protesters trying to breach one such barricade on Saturday afternoon. “I think it’s outrageous,” says Leung Kwok-hung, a pro-democracy lawmaker and one of those hit with the spray, of the police’s overall handling of the visit. “But people’s eagerness to show their opposition, it’s really phenomenal.” As has become custom for Chinese leaders visiting Hong Kong for July 1, Hu had left the city by the time the main march began on Sunday afternoon.

The weekend’s events come at a tumultuous time for the city of 7 million. Its Basic Law, a miniconstitution agreed by the British and Beijing, guarantees the former colony political autonomy and civil liberties under “one country, two systems.” Yet Hong Kong residents fear the increasing influence of the mainland. Locals have been angered by wealthy Chinese buying up the city’s valuable real estate and tens of thousands of expectant mainland mothers who have arrived in recent years to give birth — thereby automatically giving their babies residency, as well as free schooling and high-quality health care.

Despite extreme reactions — some took out newspaper advertisements earlier this year depicting mainlanders as locusts looming large on the hills over Hong Kong — the chief upshot seems to be a sharpening perception of “them and us.” A recent University of Hong Kong opinion poll found that more than 45% of those asked said they see themselves as “Hong Kongers” first rather than “Chinese” — an 11-point rise from August 1997. On the political front too, Hong Kong’s masses are dissatisfied and distrustful. Citizens have less trust in Beijing’s leaders than at any point since the handover, according to another recent University of Hong Kong survey.

(MORE: Can Hong Kong Trust Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying?)

Meanwhile, leaders closer to home do not fare much better. Outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang was forced to repeatedly apologize after accepting perceived favors from wealthy tycoon friends and upgrading to lavish hotel suites on the taxpayers’ tab while on overseas visits. Leung, a self-made millionaire, has also become embroiled in his own scandal over failing to declare illegal modifications to his exclusive home on Victoria Peak, Hong Kong’s toniest area. Many of Sunday’s marchers were calling for him to resign — on his first day in the job. Without a political base in Hong Kong, Leung will have to rely on support from Beijing, says Joseph Cheng, a political-science professor at City University of Hong Kong. But that could fuel further distrust. “There’s a danger he could get in a vicious circle,” Cheng says.

The Hong Kong government said on Sunday that Leung and his team “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.” The South China Morning Post reported that he will make visits on Monday to Shau Kei Wan and Tuen Mun, two of the city’s lower-income areas, and will visit all Hong Kong districts in the coming weeks.

In a recent interview with TIME, the new Chief Executive insisted that he will prove his doubters wrong and unite a fractious Hong Kong. He just has to hope the city doesn’t unite against him.

— With reporting by Everett Rosenfeld / Hong Kong

SPECIAL: Hong Kong 1997–2007

39 comments
Walter_Peterson
Walter_Peterson

Is the Kuomintang free to organize in Hong Kong?  That would shake things up.

Jacky98
Jacky98

As globaly democratized deepen and rise of enthusiasm on polictic participation,I believe China will be more and more open and liberal in this point.Although I am discontent with current system and national condition.We have to wrestle  against those lousy organizations.

PhanBA
PhanBA

Mr. 

Leung has lived, was  educated in a civilized society. He seem to be a decent and honorable man. He should not take this job! to be a puppet for the less educated, illegitimate, ruthless, greedy leaders in China.

This is an illegitimate leader. This is a step backward into feudal system. Do Hong kong people keep their mouth shut, to be carried back to the dark old days of feudal system??? Do you want to be treated like  Chinese in China???

China and Russia are now back to be the forces of the dark side again.

dollyrama
dollyrama

I am from Hong Kong, the vast majority of us did not protest.

PhanBA
PhanBA

The communist China is like a dark shadow over Hong Kong. A millionaire, zillionaire is calling himself communist,, it is scary.

Basically, they (communists) are a bunch of money, power hungry, greedy, decadent  people.. Just like their kings, emperors in the past. 

adam_onge
adam_onge

Yearning for the good ole days under the Brits?

Charlie Law
Charlie Law

Well, as a HongKonger, I still believe that the cause of the discontent is more economical than political. 

Well, the truth is, our next CE hasn't even started his first day in office and there are already masses of people who proclaim that they don't trust him. Why? Because you guys believe that he was appointed by China so he sucks? I don't really see the logics here. HK used to be backed by Britain and she's gone for 15 years. Now we have China to back us and you guys are suggesting that we shouldn't want it? Can HK survive alone in this world without protection provided by a powerful country? I seriously doubt it.

And you guys talk about political freedom. I don't really feel anything. Name one thing you could do before 1997 and can't do now. Running up to the President of China and verbally attacking him with June 4th? That guy is completely nuts. Every year in HK we still hold an event in remembrance to the heroes of June 4th and so far no political figure has said or done anything against it.

The Brits talk about the rule of law and HongKongers are educated to be part of this game. You know the rules and if you play well you succeed. In China, it is about authoritarianism, and not exactly because China has a choice. It is simply impossible to educate every single citizen in China given the geography and limited resources. Therefore, authoritarianism in China is more evolutionary than intentional. 

So, rule of law and authoritarianism. Which one works? They both work. But the former, though more civilized, requires so much more time and resources to establish while the latter only require some men and an arsenal. 

Two ideologies born of two utterly different entities. They will never, ever understand each other. Never. But then, does it mean China will ruin HK with all the brainwashing techniques you guys suggested? What can China possibly gain from this? Convince me with some reasonable motives coz I just can't buy this story.

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Dunham Fu
Dunham Fu

We, Hong Kong people, hate the Communists in China, as much as you guys hate Hitler.

Don't say the democracy is highly improved in China. You won't say so if you've been living in China / Hong Kong for decades.

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CindyNYC
CindyNYC

That's the price of communism. It's just a matter of time before Mainland China controls everything in Hong Kong. Good luck.

Gary Chan
Gary Chan

May be, but as i'm live in Hong Kong,

I feel our freedom become lower and lower, 

we afraid Hong Kong will same as China in few years later.

China government use all the skills to control our mind.

Vijay Banga
Vijay Banga

China is a Communist country but it has largely switched over to the dynamics of a Democratic system but HongKong need not worry, very soon the situation due to global financial downturn and events taking place inside China will right the situation.

JudeGu
JudeGu

So under British Rule is so much better?

As a mainland Chinese, I think it is just ridiculous.

dollyrama
dollyrama

As a fellow Hong Konger, very well said.

Evan231
Evan231

You are one of the childish type Hong Kongers. Let me tell you two facts, and you should be ashamed of yourself if you still think that Leung is competent as chief executive of Hong Kong. First, for the last two months he had criticize his opponent Tong for building his house illegally, but in fact he himself did the same, this shows that he is a pure liar. Second, he refused to comment about Lee who being killed by C.C.P , he waited until C.C.P to said they will investigate and only then he stated his support.This shows he is dependant to C.C.P and being ignorant when dealing with morale issue. Such despicable and low morale person shall be not be Hong Kongers leader. I advised you to read more news and shut your mouth if you didn;t knew the truth of Hong Kong rather that writing some 2500 words assessment which basically states bullshits.

Evan231
Evan231

Two question for you. First, did you knew that Leung's appointment is not even undergone by a formal public election? He was just supported by 600 government officials, not 7 million Hong Kongers! Second, will you support a person who is shameless, despicable and evil? Leung has publicly criticize his opponent Tang during the election,claiming that he build his house illegally last two months. But just one week ago, HK media found the evidence that he himself built his house illegally!!! This means he is  a liar and evil. He also refused to commented about mainland activist Lee who being killed. Until C.C.P made a statement that they will investigate, only the coward Leung came out and state the support for Lee. Such despicable, low morale person can't be Chief Leader of Hong Kong. Lastly, I would like to advised you to shut up and read more news if you didn't knew about the truth of Hong Kong before commenting with a 2500 words assessment which states basically nonsense.      

laien
laien

i agree with you

laien
laien

i agree with you

beef768
beef768

@Dunham Fu You should NOT say "WE" as I am also someone in Hong Kong and I do NOT hate China!  So STOP thinking YOU can represent ALL people in Hong Kong!

vuhoangyenkit
vuhoangyenkit

@Dunham Fu I am Vietnamese, hate the same as you hate. God bless us...Keep fighting. you are so brave. 

f_galton
f_galton

Keep fighting, Dunham Fu.

RaKuZa
RaKuZa

Funny enough the Chinese Communist party no longer believes in communism. The policy in China right now is extreme capitalism. Look at the levels of wealth disparity in China at the moment. It is the highest in the world. "Communism" is a rip off term for all the rich and corrupted officials. 

Winston Smith
Winston Smith

 'Communism' You are kidding right? Don't juts swallow whatever the media feeds to you! Just because it and we call China Communist doesn't mean it is. With it's wealth of welfare programs and support for students, the sick, and the unemployed, (and banking give-aways, err 'bailouts' united is far more socialist than China today

vuhoangyenkit
vuhoangyenkit

@Gary Chan God bless you, you hongkonger inspires us. 


rory2012
rory2012

 When you follow the democracy movement in HK,make sure who you followed.It's not just black or white,simple like that.Politic is a dirty word.At the moment those people flag the flag in HK are in payroll.Some of them are holding foreign passport.The one I knew of ,Albert Chan is an Canandian graduated from university of Winnipeg.Don't be naive.Do more good things for the society, man.

dollyrama
dollyrama

Hi Gary, what freedom that is taken from you that you enjoy 12 years ago? LOL!

rory2012
rory2012

 In a few years time ,you will beg for your Chinese passport instead of still consider yourself British subject.In the history of any part of the world ,I never see a collaborator or traitor gain any respect from their master. At the most may received a few kind words and never respect but spit on.

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AlCelestial
AlCelestial

You have been feeling like that for 20 years now. Maybe it is time to cheer up?

Last time I checked, your mind still belongs to you. Are you really hearing voices?

BTW, your English is bad. Is that mainland's fault too?

Dunham Fu
Dunham Fu

 China has democratic system? and even a fair law system? You are kidding me.

adam_onge
adam_onge

 Yeah, it's ridiculous that HongKongers are not considered equal to the "mainland Chinese"

Dunham Fu
Dunham Fu

 You are kidding me. China still ruling people with Communist propaganda just like the old days, no matter how the virtual economic growth it is. Interestingly, Capitalism wouldn't make much advancement in China, but a more and more corrupted Nation.

dollyrama
dollyrama

Rather, it is Hong Kongers who consider themselves superior to mainanders. BTW, why didn't the Brits give the Hong Kongers real British Passports??? The British National Overseas Passport, what a joke. LOL!