Thousands of people marched through the streets of Hong Kong to protest Chinese rule on the 15th anniversary of the Asian city’s return to Beijing’s control and on the same day the territory’s new leader was sworn in.
Organizers pegged the number of protesters at 400,000 while police estimated there were 63,000 at the procession’s peak. It was a powerful message of defiance to the visiting Chinese leader Hu Jintao that Hong Kong values its autonomy and does not want to be seen as a puppet of Beijing.
They were protesting on the day that Hong Kong’s new chief executive Leung Chun-ying was sworn in for a five-year term, and Mr Hu called on the leader to deal with issues facing the former crown colony.
“While we recognise Hong Kong’s achievements 15 years after the handover, we must also be conscious of the deep disagreements and problems in Hong Kong society,” Mr Hu said.
Hong Kong has retained much of the freedom promised within the context of its mini-constitution. But 15 years on, there is unhappiness about issues such as corruption, which it worked hard to bring under control, but which has worsened since 1997; and a growing wealth gap.
Mr Leung (57) was backed by Beijing, but suspicion that he is a secret Communist Party member, and a housing scandal similar to the one which saw his rival Henry Tang suffer badly in the electoral race, have tarnished his image.
Outside the Convention Centre in Hong Kong harbour, at which Britain restored the territory to Chinese rule 15 years ago, there was a huge police presence and barricades halted efforts by demonstrators to approach the venue.
“Hong Kong has freedoms, and we have the right to protest! Why do you even stop us from walking?” said parliamentarian and democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan as police tried to stop the demonstrators.
Many carried banners denouncing the crackdown on democracy protesters on Tiananmen Square in June 1989. This remains a source of discord in Hong Kong, which has been promised greater democracy but with question marks over the timetable.
A lone protester waved a small flag and heckled Mr Hu as he delivered his speech, calling for an end to one-party rule and dictatorship in China, before he was wrestled away by security personnel.
Beijing has pledged that Hong Kong can elect its own leader in 2017 and all legislators by 2020 at the earliest, but no roadmap has been laid out. As it stands, only 1,200 elite business people out of Hong Kong’s seven million population have the right to vote for their chief executive.
A poll this month by Hong Kong university showed that 37 per cent of Hong Kongers distrust Beijing, the highest since the handover on July 1st, 1997.
This feeling will not have been helped by a report that close relatives of China’s anointed supreme leader, Xi Jinping, own millions of euro in holdings in a number of companies, and also own expensive assets, including in Hong Kong’s Repulse Bay area.