A wave of protests in Hong Kong ahead of citywide elections is posing a major test for the city-state’s new leader as the prospect of voter discontent threatens to shake up the political landscape in retaliation against perceived meddling by Beijing.
This time round, the legislature will be more democratic — it has been expanded from 60 to 70 seats, with just over half of those to be directly elected in tomorrow’s polls.
The results are likely to reflect the anti-China sentiment, especially over a school curriculum plan extolling the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Thousands have demonstrated outside government headquarters for a week demanding the program be scrapped and forcing Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) to cancel what would have been his first major international event at the APEC forum in Russia.
Schoolchildren, teachers, parents and ordinary citizens have denounced the curriculum as CCP propaganda glossing over the darker aspects of Chinese rule, hitting a raw nerve in the former British colony.
The protests have included hunger strikes and the parading of a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue, invoking memories of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square uprising and thrown the spotlight on a new generation of activists.
“He [Leung] feels that just by repeating the same lines, the problem will go away. But Hong Kong civil society doesn’t work like this anymore,” said Lo Chi-kin, a public affairs consultant.
Hong Kong is a freewheeling capitalist hub which enjoys a high degree of autonomy, but Beijing has resisted public pressure for full democracy and has maintained a high degree of behind-the-scenes influence in political, media and academic spheres, among others.
The latest uproar represents yet another headache for Beijing, after Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) appealed in July for Hong Kong to maintain unity, with Beijing’s own leaders grappling with their imminent leadership transition.
Although the outcome of tomorrow’s election will not affect Beijing-backed Leung’s position, political analysts say recent controversies may benefit the opposition pro-democracy camp, making it more difficult for the chief executive to pass policies in a fractious legislature in coming years.
Leung would be the biggest loser in the election whatever the outcome, with the polls coming when the city is torn by suspicion and mistrust, Baptist University professor Michael DeGolyer said.
In a move that signaled a softening of the administration’s stance on the school program, a government advisory body said on Thursday it was willing to discuss and possibly compromise on the scheme.
Hours later, Leung also sought to reassure residents angry over high property prices and a yawning wealth gap, pledging to start land sales for property restricted to Hong Kong residents early next year.