Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Hong Kong residents took to the streets on Sunday to show new Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) just what they thought of Beijing’s vaunted “one country, two systems” — and because they can still, as yet, legally exercise their rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
Although such rallies on July 1 to mark the 1997 handover to China have become an annual ritual, the turnout — whether you believe the police figures of 63,000 or the organizers’ of 400,000 — was a welcome reminder of the noisy popularism that is a hallmark of the limited democracy that is still available to those who live in Hong Kong. It was also a reminder of the growing anger in Hong Kong over Beijing’s rule, flagrant human rights abuses in China, the lack of an adequate social safety net and what the public sees as an onslaught from China of tourists, expectant mothers and real-estate speculators.
The march was also notable for the hundreds of Chinese who traveled to the territory to protest the confiscation of their farms for real-estate projects in villages just across the border from Hong Kong — enjoying a freedom that is not available to them at home — as the police crackdown on Monday in Shifang, China, on a rally against a new metals plant amply demonstrated once again.
However, Sunday’s massive march must have been discomforting for Hu, who had already had his speech earlier in the day marking the 15th anniversary of the handover disrupted by a lone heckler demanding an end to one-party rule in China. Such direct displays of displeasure are not something he is accustomed to.
Hu’s visit to Hong Kong had been tightly scripted and held under a massive security net that kept him from the average resident and vice versa, though not from the heckler, or from an intrepid journalist who managed to get close enough to Hu during one of his outings to ask for an explanation of the Tiananmen Square Massacre before being bundled away by police.
Hu and his Beijing cohorts were apparently rattled enough by other recent protests in Hong Kong that his speech after Leung’s swearing-in focused on the need for unity amid the “deep disagreements and problems in Hong Kong society.”
While Hu is now ensconced in the safety and isolation of Zhongnanhai, Leung must face the flack in Hong Kong head on, and it looks as if his five-year term will be filled with it. Having alienated many Hong Kongers even more by choosing to deliver his inauguration speech in Mandarin rather than Cantonese, he faced hecklers on his first day on the job, even though he began the day by promising to “seriously and humbly listen to the people’s demands.” The heckling was so intense at a town hall-style meeting on Monday that Leung had to be unceremoniously hustled out of the auditorium by police.
Many in the territory already fear Leung’s close connections with the Chinese Communist Party, worried he might use his term to restrict some of the territory’s civil liberties enshrined in its Basic Law. His government was forced to issue a statement on Sunday night saying that it would protect the “freedom and rights of the people.”
Beijing has promised that the territory will be able to directly elect its next chief executive in 2017 and the anger shown this past weekend is a clear sign that it must live up to that promise. Both Leung and his masters in Beijing have a massive task ahead of them if they intend to keep that promise. While the people of Hong Kong nervously await developments, Taiwan and the rest of the world will be closely watching to see what Leung is allowed to do, which is why Taiwanese must add their voices to those in Hong Kong demanding that the promise is met.