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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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

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