China's Santa Claus shakes up Hong Kong
By Augustine Tam
HONG KONG - It was a Santa Claus-type visit, with goodies handed out left,
right and center. But days after Chinese premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang returned
to Beijing, Hong Kong continued to reverberate with anger over the
extraordinarily tight security measures taken by the administration and police
during his visit on August 16-18.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has denied any heavy-handed treatment of
tertiary students and reporters, but worries are growing about tightening up on
freedoms of expression and the press.
One thing is for certain: the image of the University of Hong Kong (HKU),
ranked No 1 in Asia and 21st in the world in the 2010-11
Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, has been hurt. This is
where Li delivered a keynote speech last week when students claimed they were
manhandled by police.
On August 23, HKU Vice Chancellor Tsui Lap-chee for the first time apologized
to the students - his fourth statement on the incident in less than a week. His
statement, which came amid calls for him to step down, was run in full-page
advertisements in Chinese-language newspapers, promising that "The University
of Hong Kong is always a bastion of free speech."
He said the mistreatment of students was due to the university's lack of
experience in organizing public events. "As the university's vice chancellor, I
apologize for not being able to prevent the incident from happening." He
stressed that police should have respected the university's autonomy when
carrying out duties on campus.
About 1,500 HKU students and alumni have also published a petition as
advertisements in Chinese-language newspapers, condemning last Thursday as "the
darkest day in the university's history". Three HKU students claimed they were
pulled to the ground by police, while one says he was dragged away and locked
up for an hour.
They accused Tsui and the HKU management of banning minority voices, demanding
an apology from Tsui and the resignation of Police Commissioner Andy Tsang
Wai-hung. Some 9,000 have joined a Facebook group denouncing the incident.
Li had, ostensibly, been invited to grace the university's centenary
celebrations, and was unaware of the students being pulled down and locked up.
Those students indignantly said Li had invited himself to the HKU; Tsui said
the university had invited him to attend the ceremony.
On Monday, some 300 journalists took part in an unprecedented protest march on
police headquarters in Wan Chai against the security measures of Li's
entourage. The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) also demanded a meeting
with Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen to lodge a protest.
Usually, press demonstrations in this city rarely exceed a dozen people.
Li, now a vice-premier, is expected to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao in a year's
time. Since the 1997 handover of the British colony to mainland China, all the
key leaders of the central government, from former and incumbent presidents
Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao down to other senior officials, have visited Hong
Kong and seen students, anti-China activists and reporters close-up.
In every instance, demonstrators have sounded off within sight and hearing
distance. This time, anyone not invited was kept way out of sight. Even
reporters covering the vice-premier had to watch proceedings on closed circuit
TV some distance away and were later given footage of the meetings. Other
reporters covering events outdoors were kept about 100 meters away, behind
walls of policemen.
When Li visited a housing estate, police pounced on a man wearing a T-shirt
asking for universal suffrage and confirmation of the Tiananmen Square
crackdown in 1989. The police accused him of breaching a "security area". The
guy's apartment happened to be inside the area.
HKJA chairman Mak Yin-ting said such police actions were everyday occurrences
on the mainland but had been unheard of in Hong Kong. "We are supposed to have
'one country, two systems'. But it appears the police have decided that one
system should also be practiced in Hong Kong."
When told about all these complaints over violation of press freedom and human
rights, Chief Secretary Tang, generally seen as a media-friendly figure,
described them as total "rubbish". The press was infuriated.
Tang's response hinted at a long hot summer ahead for press and political
activists. A slew of elections are in the offing, and some people want to be
seen to be playing tough, Tang included.
On November 6, Hong Kong will elect 412 people to 18 district councils. Until
now these councils have little or no relevance to the political structure. But
after the November polls, these 412 district councilors will make up a new
functional constituency providing five new members of the next legislature
which, itself, will be voted in next September.
In between, on March 25, 2012, a new chief executive will be selected to
succeed Tsang. Tang will be one of the contestants and is widely seen as a dark
horse. Since the majority of the selectors in the Election Committee are
handpicked pro-Beijing figures, a touch of antipathy towards a rambunctious
media is generally seen as a plus point.
Li Keqiang's visit was not quite the generous ho-ho-ho slide down the chimney
by a not-so-chubby Santa.
Sure, he brought a bagful of goodies: allowing mainlanders into the Hong Kong
stock market, opening the mainland market to Hong Kong's medical, law and
construction firms, as well as travel agencies, and lowering thresholds for
service providers. Greater access will also be given to Hong Kong lenders and
insurers along with other measures to enhance tourism and trade.
However, in the short and medium term, ordinary wage-earners have little to
gain from these "grand gifts". Hong Kong's inflation rate of 7.9% in July, a
16-year high, is beginning to turn life into a nightmare for the poorest of the
poor. According to one recent study, some children of these poor families are
beginning to experience hunger.
This situation may prove to be fertile ground for the less established
political groups like extreme right "Mad Dog" Wong Yuk-man's People Power and
Trotskyist "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung's League of Socialist Democrats. Both
groups have spawned smaller, ostensibly unconnected units which do not shy away
from direct action.
In recent months, police have clashed with groups of young people during
These incidents may have prompted the extraordinary police measures during Li's
visit. The police have kept a straight face when insisting that the measures
were no different from previous ones.
The commissioner, however, admitted that 2,000 to 3,000 police officers were
assigned to protect Li each day. The Hong Kong police force is about 30,000
strong. Donald Tsang described these measures as "appropriate". More protest
actions from students and scribes are slated for coming weeks.
Augustine Tam is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.
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