Hong Kong’s Embattled Leader Faces More Protests

Mass demonstrations took place on New Year’s Day, with tens of thousands calling for the leader of China’s freest city to step down and demanding that the post be filled on a directly elected basis

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Protesters carry posters of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during a rally urging him to step down on Jan. 1, 2013, in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay

UPDATED: 10:30 p.m.

The inauguration of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, on July 1, 2012, was denounced by democracy activists who objected to the manner of his appointment at the hands of a few hundred members of an elite electoral college. Exactly six months into his term of office, the political climate has intensified.

Mass demonstrations took place on New Year’s Day, with tens of thousands of protesters calling for the leader of China’s freest city to step down and demanding that the post be filled on a directly elected basis. University of Hong Kong enumerators said that over 30,000 took part.

Pro-Leung rallies were also staged, and though much smaller (police estimate a total of 8,500 participants), they nonetheless reflected a polarization of political opinion that has become more pronounced during Leung’s administration. In one corner, a mostly middle-class movement, with well-educated young people at its core, is determined to maintain and expand upon democratic freedoms as a bulwark against mainland-Chinese encroachment, while propounding a strong Hong Kong identity distinct from the rest of the country. In the other, a movement drawn from pro-China trades unions, the working class and seniors seeks greater harmony and integration with Beijing, both for patriotic reasons and as a means of buttressing the local economy. “Freedom, democracy and culture are only part of the superstructure,” says pro-government demonstrator Tung Wah-hing, a retired engineer. “If the economy improves, democracy will improve.”

(TIME’s Asia Cover Story: Can Hong Kong Trust Leung Chun-ying?)

The immediate pretext for the antigovernment demonstrations on Jan. 1 is the question of Leung’s personal integrity, which has taken a battering from a deepening scandal over unauthorized additions to his house on Peel Rise, one of Hong Kong’s most expensive addresses. The enlargements, which came to light shortly before Leung’s inauguration, may appear minor, consisting of a small storage room, a trellis and other works. But in a densely crowded metropolis, where even affluent families can live in spaces far smaller than what their counterparts would enjoy in other developed cities, the idea that Leung had made the additions without obtaining the required authorizations and paying the appropriate fees is deeply dismaying. Compounding the damage to his reputation is the fact that his win against Henry Tang, his main opponent in the election last year, hinged upon a shift in public opinion that favored Leung after it was revealed that Tang’s house featured extensive illegal additions. Leung — a surveyor by profession and veteran of Hong Kong’s property sector — famously criticized Tang, during a televised debate, for making the enlargements.

The scandal worsened during December, when it was revealed that one of Leung’s former homes, in the tony seaside district of Stanley, was also under investigation for unauthorized additions. Leung’s wooden performance during a Legislative Council appearance on the issue on Dec. 10 caused further damage to his credibility and even prompted rare criticism from a pro-government legislator, who described the Chief Executive as “obstinate.”

The scandal is being played out against an already harsh political backdrop for Leung. Since he took office six months ago, public discontent has escalated over everything from rising housing costs and pollution to the social and economic changes being wrought by an influx of mainland Chinese, who are making significant impacts on the city, whether as emigrants, tourists or investors. There was also an outcry over an attempt to introduce into the school curriculum classes on “national education” — courses seen by many parents and students as Communist Party brainwashing.

(MORE: Why Hong Kong Wants Nothing to Do with ‘Patriotism’ for Now)

Leung has tried to address livelihood issues and concerns about infringements by mainlanders, with some success. But further progress has been stymied by the controversy over his integrity and by a lack of clear answers to the big questions that underpin all current political debate in Hong Kong: How can the government and the legislature become more representative of the city’s increasingly sophisticated populace? And how will Hong Kong’s future be best guaranteed — by cooperating with China or by standing up to it?

In 1997, when Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony and became a semiautonomous region of China, many assumed that, true to its pragmatic and businesslike nature, it would quickly fit in with its new sovereign power. But in fact there has been a creeping cultural separation between the two. To the great embarrassment of Beijing, the colonial-era flag is now increasingly unfurled at demonstrations by protesters who see it as a symbol of everything that makes Hong Kong different to the rest of China, including rule of law, multiculturalism, openness to the world and media freedom. At the New Year’s Day march, flag waver Steven Chan says he thinks of himself as a Hong Kong person, not Chinese. “We have the same blood but not the same values. That’s why we aren’t Chinese,” he says. “Even though this is a colonial flag, it represents freedom.”

At the root of much political frustration is the inability of Hong Kong people to elect their own leader. Anti-Leung protesters have scathingly nicknamed him Six Eight Nine after the 689 votes he received during last year’s election, during which a carefully vetted committee of just 1,200 voters cast ballots for one of three candidates. Beijing has given 2017 as the earliest date at which it will allow Hong Kong to directly elect a Chief Executive, but is quite capable of shelving the matter indefinitely should the political climate worsen in its wayward enclave. In the meantime, a culture of protest is growing as Hong Kong’s disenfranchised masses have no choice but to take to take to the streets to make themselves heard.

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

Popular protest dealt a lethal blow to the administration of Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa. He stepped down in the middle of his second term after several missteps — including a bid to introduce national-security legislation, which many feared would curb freedoms — brought half a million onto the streets. That precedent makes it at least conceivable that Leung may not serve his full five-year term. He is already facing an impeachment motion over his unauthorized building works. The vote, which will take place on Jan. 7, will not succeed, as it only carries the support of the Legislative Council’s democratic minority, but as Allen Lee Peng-fei, a seasoned political commentator, notes, “The sentiment is there.”

According to Lee, “Whether he should step down or not is a decision for Beijing to make.” While Xi Jinping, who will soon be China’s President, recently expressed approval of Leung, the Chinese leadership must now recognize that Leung’s administration has sparked a political crisis. If he is to resign, it will not happen overnight. “Even if the authorities have a Plan B, it takes time to prepare,” says Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong. “It is most unlikely that he will step down in the coming year or so, and I think people know it, even the demonstrators.” In the meantime, given the flak he increasingly coming under, Leung might start contemplating another addition to his Peel Rise home: a bunker.

With reporting by Patrick Boehler

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