KONG - The fireworks are spent, the stage has been
cleared and Chinese President Hu Jintao and his
entourage have left town after dispensing economic
goodies intended to win friends and favor on the
15th anniversary of this city's transfer from
British to Chinese rule.
But during a
weekend of official speeches and celebrations
there were a lot more people protesting in the
streets (around 100,000 demonstrators turned out,
according to the University of Hong Kong Public
Opinion Program) outside the Hong Kong Exhibition
and Convention Center than there were taking part
in the carefully choreographed festivities inside.
Patriotism and economic partnership and
reward may have been
the themes for
dignitaries on the inside, but it was Can't Buy
Me Love in the city's streets.
Officially, it was time to proclaim the
success of the unique "one country, two systems"
formula that allowed the handover of sovereignty
to take place in that same convention center on
July 1, 1997, with a wholly different cast of
characters on stage - among them, at the top of
the bill, Britain's Prince Charles, the then
Chinese president Jiang Zimen, outgoing governor
Chris Patten and incoming chief executive Tung
Chee-hwa, the territory's first Chinese leader.
Before the Union Jack was lowered at
midnight on that historic day, thousands of
unnerved Hong Kong residents, fearing the worst,
had taken their earnings and fled to Canada, the
United States and other Western nations. Two years
prior to the handover, Fortune magazine had
proclaimed, in a widely quoted cover story, "The
Death of Hong Kong".
Yet, 15 years after
the departure of the British, this city of 7.1
million people remains very much alive and
kicking. All too frequently, however, those kicks
have been aimed at Hu and the rest of the Chinese
leadership as, increasingly, mainland economic and
cultural influences are seen to be eroding Hong
Kong's core values as a Special Administrative
Region of China - freedom of speech and the press,
respect for human rights and adherence to the rule
On the surface - which is where Hu
and his trailing retinue chose to live during
their three-day stay in the city - all is well.
Thanks in good measure to China's booming
economy, Hong Kong avoided the worst of the 2008
global financial crisis and last year enjoyed
economic growth of 5% while the euro zone sank and
the United States' economy continued to limp
along. Unemployment in the city stands at almost
On the face of it, times
are good, although that could change dramatically
amid the economic uncertainties of the coming
Chinese leaders can - and do - boast
that the Hong Kong economy has fared well under
Beijing's rule. The economic rewards handed out
over the weekend by Hu, who last visited the city
to mark the 10th anniversary of the handover and
whose 10-year presidency comes to an end next
year, are meant to be a cheerful reminder of that.
Due to the motherland's largesse, Hong
Kong has become an offshore center for trade in
the Chinese currency, the yuan, and the central
government promises to integrate the city's
financial services into the low-tax special
economic zone of Qianhai that is being created
across the border in the bustling city of
With Hong Kong benefiting so
much from China's rise, why, then, would so many
demonstrators take to the streets on July 1 -
which, since the first handover ceremony in 1997,
has doubled as a day of celebration and protest -
throwing a serious damper on what was supposed to
be a jubilant celebration of the 15-year success
story of the "one country, two systems" mantra?
While organizers said there were 400,000
protestors, police put the number at 55,000 and
the University of Hong Kong estimated there were
Scratch the surface - as Chinese
leaders are loath to do - and the answers readily
appear. Despite the fireworks, the glitz and the
glamour of the weekend celebrations, all is not
well in Hong Kong's quest to find its feet under
True, under Beijing's watch,
Hong Kong's economy - minus the years of the Asian
financial crisis (1997-1998) and the SARS outbreak
(2003) - has flourished. Indeed, lately the city
has suffered an embarrassment of riches, with
Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announcing
unforeseen budget surpluses of HK$73.7 billion
(US$9.5 billion) last year and HK$71.3 billion the
Yet, as government coffers
bulge, property prices have reached historic
highs, making owning a home an impossible dream
for the average person, and the city's wealth gap
has become the highest in the developed world.
According to the Census and Statistics
Department, the top 10% of Hong Kong's wage
earners took in a median monthly income of
HK$95,000 (US$12,247) in 2011, nearly HK$20,000
more than they were earning five years earlier; on
the other hand, the poorest 10% of the city's
workers settled for HK$2,070 (US$267), down from
HK$2,250 five years ago.
city's social and economic landscape, a wave of
newly rich, free-spending visitors from the
mainland have been buying up everything from
property to baby formula milk, driving up prices
and becoming easy scapegoats for the anger and
resentment felt by the growing "have-not"
population, as well as an increasingly pinched
Nearly 20% of Hong Kong
families now live below the poverty line, many of
them in "shoe-box" apartments or, even worse,
"cage homes" so small that dwellers must sleep in
the fetal position. Adding further to social
discontent, the men and women whom the underclass
blame for their plight, Hong Kong's leaders, are
the world's highest-paid bureaucrats with the
exception of those in Singapore.
year, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen -
a longtime civil servant who on Sunday formally
handed over power to Leung Chun-ying, a wealthy
surveyor - was paid the equivalent of US$513,245
(compared with US President Barack Obama's
US$400,000 annual paycheck) before leaving office
under the cloud of a corruption investigation and
with dismal approval ratings from the people he
served for seven years.
humiliating exit from the city's corridors of
power is further evidence of a larger problem that
regularly provokes street demonstrations here: a
dysfunctional political system that is obviously
hamstrung by Beijing.
So eager are Hong
Kong leaders to kowtow to their northern masters
that they dare not speak up for their own people,
many of whom see their experiences and values as
being at odds with those of their mainland
Before the Tsang debacle,
there was the Tung debacle. At least, Tsang
survived to see the end of his term; Tung resigned
as chief executive in 2005 - putatively for
"health reasons" - two years after 500,000
demonstrators hit the streets, again on July 1, to
protest against proposed national-security
legislation that they saw as a threat to Hong
Kong's core values.
To this day, that
legislation has not become law; meanwhile, Tung,
who turns 75 on July 7, appears the picture of
Governing may not be any
easier for the latest chief executive. Leung is
already being investigated by the Independent
Commission Against Corruption for allegedly
telling lies in election pledges. After six
illegal structures were recently found at his
luxurious home on The Peak there were calls for
his resignation before he even took office.
The campaign of Leung's main rival in the
small-circle election for chief executive, former
chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, was derailed
by similar property "revelations" - he ad built an
illegal, 2,400-square-foot "underground palace"
beneath one of his homes.
illegal-structures scandal now hanging over
Leung's own head and the stubborn opposition of
the pan-democratic camp in Hong Kong's Legislative
Council (Legco) pretty much assured during his
five-year term, it's most likely going to be a
rough ride for the new incumbent, just as it was
for his predecessors.
notwithstanding, the main problem in Hong Kong has
not been the men chosen to lead the city since the
handover but, rather, a half-baked political
system that makes it impossible for any leader to
Half of Legco's 60
members are democratically elected while the other
half are not, and a 1,200-member election
committee controlled by Beijing chooses the chief
executive. That's a formula for political
paralysis, which is exactly what Hong Kong has
seen over the past 15 years.
held out the prospect of a fully democratic chief
executive election in 2017 and a Legco elected by
universal suffrage in 2020, but many observers
smell a rat.
It is almost certain that
candidates for chief executive will be vetted by
the election committee before the hoi polloi are
allowed to vote for them. Moreover, the Chinese
leadership and the city's pan-democratic
politicians are nowhere near resolution on what to
do with Legco members from so-called "functional
constituencies" (representatives chosen by special
interests such as the banking and insurance
industries that tend to take their cues from
Beijing), who currently fill half the seats in the
Just as political reform has been
slow in coming on the authoritarian mainland, Hong
Kong, too, has been marching in step politically
since the handover. Yet, unlike on the mainland,
Hong Kong enjoys all the other freedoms - of
speech, press and assembly - that are associated
with full-fledged democracies.
values are guaranteed in the Basic Law, the city's
mini-constitution, for at least 50 years following
the handover and have given Hong Kong a respect
for basic human rights often lacking in Beijing.
That's why the name of Li Wangyang - the
Chinese democracy activist who, deaf and blind
after spending 21 years in prison, died under
suspicious circumstances in the south-central city
of Shaoyang last month - was ringing in the
streets during protests on Saturday and Sunday.
Li was found hanging from a window bar in
the hospital room where he was being treated for
heart disease and diabetes just days after he
vowed to press ahead for democratic reform in
China. Initially, Shaoyang authorities classified
his death as a suicide but later, due in good part
to large-scale protests in Hong Kong, declared it
an "accident" and promised an investigation.
Since the evidence, Li's body, appears to
have been cremated against his family's wishes,
however, it is hard to see where this
investigation will go.
Of course, Li's
death is just the latest in a long string of
stories of apparent human-rights abuses and
extra-judicial punishments coming out of China. In
another sensational case in late April, blind
legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from
alleged torture under house arrest in his village
in eastern Shandong province and, with the help of
American officials in Beijing, negotiated his
passage to the US, where he is now working as
research fellow at New York University.
Chen's name could also be heard loud and
clear in the Hong Kong streets over the weekend.
Fifteen years on, the economic benefits of
Hong Kong's return to the motherland have proved
manifold. But this past weekend also served as a
stinging reminder that tens of thousands of
Chinese citizens who reside in this city continue
to be appalled by their nation's human-rights
record and don't want to witness the same horrors
in their city.
That's one big reason
two-thirds of the people polled recently by the
South China Morning Post, the city's leading
English-language daily newspaper, said Hong Kong
has become a worse place to live since 1997.
Another poll, conducted by the University of Hong
Kong, found that mistrust of the central
government has reached its highest point - 37% -
since the handover.
As mainland and Hong
Kong officials raises their glasses to toast the
HK$145 billion spillover from the city's coffers
over the past two years, that's something for them
to think about.
Kent Ewing is a Hong
Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached
at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter:
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