The Leadership Crisis at the Heart of China’s Freest City

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Liam Fitzpatrick

Democracy protesters gather under storm clouds at Hong Kong's Victoria Park, in preparation for the annual July 1 march

July 1, officially marked as the day that Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, is unofficially the city’s day of discontent. Ever since 2003, when a landmark protest brought half a million people — more than 7% of the population — onto the streets to demonstrate against national-security legislation and the unpopular administration of the city’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, the people of Hong Kong have used July 1 to march for a rainbow of causes, from rural preservation to migrant-worker rights to better treatment for sex workers. But yesterday’s rally — the 10th iteration of the 7/1 marches, as they are known in Cantonese — was startlingly different in the monolithic unity of the demand being made. The only thing being asked for was representative leadership.

Braving the ominous clouds and lashing rain of a passing cyclone, thousands of marchers began assembling in the city’s Victoria Park from early yesterday. The darkest shadows, however, were not being cast by Typhoon Rumbia but by a widely despised, oligarchic political system that prevents a well-educated and highly sophisticated populace from directly electing its own Chief Executive. The post — it comes with far broader powers than a city mayor but rather less autonomy than a Prime Minister — has, since 2012, been filled by Leung Chun-ying, who is intelligent, grave and of statesmanlike bearing but deeply unpopular because he is regarded as Beijing’s representative instead of Hong Kong’s. To the great discomfort of Hong Kong people, he made his inauguration speech last year in China’s national language, Mandarin, instead of the Cantonese spoken locally.

(MORE: Hong Kong’s Embattled Leader Faces More Protests)

Leung owes his tenure to a slim majority of votes made by an elite electoral college, whose 1,200 members — mostly senior business types — are vetted by a mainland government that many locals feel is trying to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy. To its credit, Beijing has not pressed Hong Kong on key issues — the proposed national-security legislation that aroused so much ire in 2003 has been deferred, as have plans to introduce “patriotic” components into the local school curriculum. The Hong Kong government has also taken action to curb areas of tension between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese, by making it far tougher for mainland women to give birth in the territory, and slapping a two-can limit on the amount of infant-milk formula that visitors, mostly mainland Chinese, can take with them when they leave.

But without a directly elected leader to safeguard their interests and with a decades-long mistrust of the repressive one-party state that lies beyond the Kowloon hills, the people of Hong Kong are feeling vulnerable. There has been time for resentment at the farcical manner of Leung’s election, just over a year ago, to build up. The realization that other issues — from income inequality to pollution — will not be decisively addressed without a popularly elected and accountable leader has also sunk in. That is why the leadership crisis overshadowed other causes in yesterday’s march, with thousands chanting calls for Leung’s ouster and derisively addressing him as “Mr. 689” — a reference to the small number of votes by which he secured his position.

The total number of protesters has been difficult to establish. The police, who can be relied on to deliver a significant underestimate, put the crowd at 66,000, while organizers claimed that 430,000 people turned out in the wet weather. The University of Hong Kong’s public-opinion program came up with a figure of 93,000. Not at issue, however, was the deep discontent that lies at the heart of many in China’s freest city. Heard reverberating throughout the protest — as it did in Istanbul’s Taksim Square last month — was “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables. Hong Kong’s old colonial flag was held aloft by many marchers, taunting Beijing with the notion that things were better under British rule and also signifying that Hong Kong Chinese feel very distinct from their mainland cousins in terms of culture and identity. Some demonstrators even held placards denouncing “Chinese colonists.” Unsurprisingly, young faces were prominent in the crowd. (Leung is so detested by Hong Kong youth that when he showed up earlier this year to confer diplomas at a ceremony at the city’s Academy for Performing Arts, several graduating students refused to accept their diplomas from him, while others turned their backs or made rude gestures.)

“It’s time to come out and speak loudly to say we are not slaves,” Oscar Yau, aged 20, said at yesterday’s rally. “We all want the right to select the Chief Executive.”

Hong Kong’s constitution, known as the Basic Law, does permit the eventual direct election of the Chief Executive, and Beijing has said the 2017 election will be the earliest at which such elections will be contemplated. But naturally there’s a condition, as revealed in March by Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the legal committee of the National People’s Congress. He said Beijing would not accept Hong Kong Chief Executive candidates unless they “love China” — party speak for following Beijing’s line. The mainland government’s great fear is that this headstrong enclave will elect to its highest position a firebrand like legislator Leung Kwok-hung, a popular radical democracy activist habitually clad in Che Guevara T-shirts, who would then use the position to attack Communist Party legitimacy.

And yet, “Hong Kong’s political system is already off-kilter. If we don’t have [a directly elected leader], then we don’t have hope,” says Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong and founder of the campaign Occupy Central, which played a prominent part in yesterday’s rally. The organization aims to gather 10,000 people to peacefully block traffic in Hong Kong’s financial district next year, unless the government comes up with a convincing road map for a directly elected leader.

As if to emphasize his remoteness from the populace, the Chief Executive spent part of July 1 at a flag-raising ceremony for a small group of invited VIPs. But he responded to protesters on Monday, saying the Hong Kong government considered it a responsibility to enact political reform and work toward direct elections, and that it would listen to marchers’ opinions “in a humble manner.”

Unfortunately, a significant portion of Hong Kong’s population has no faith that it will do so. “Right now, we question the legitimacy of our leader because he is only representative of 689 people,” says Chong Chun-wai, a pastor who attended the rally with his son. Chong echoed the views of many in Hong Kong when he appealed for Beijing’s trust. “There is a confidence crisis because the Hong Kong people don’t trust its government and China doesn’t trust Hong Kong enough to elect our own Chief Executive,” he adds. “But if we can all try and listen to each other, they will realize that Hong Kong does not necessarily want to sever its relations with China. Hong Kong people are smart, and we know we can’t survive without China.” That relationship may be the final arbiter of any political solution. Tempests — be they political storms or literal ones, like yesterday’s sudden typhoon — come and go, but the mutual dependence of China and Hong Kong is a reality that will not change.

— With reporting by Dan Kedmey / Hong Kong

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