Protest in Hong Kong
Monsoon of their discontent
An annual ritual turns into an expression of grievances
Jul 7th 2011 | HONG KONG | from the print edition
ON JULY 1st 2003 half a million people took to the streets of Hong Kong, forced the government to give up on a reviled law and ended the career of the territory’s chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. This is not a Tung Chee-hwa moment, but the kettle is boiling again. On July 1st throngs of angry Hong Kong people rallied between Victoria Park and the government buildings in Central—more than 200,000, according to organisers—shouting, singing, whistling and waving banners demanding democratic rights, great and small. It was the largest popular demonstration on Chinese territory in several years. The people of Hong Kong, so often quiescent, are angry again: at their local government and at meddling by the national authorities in faraway Beijing.
On the next business day, July 4th, the government blinked, postponing a controversial revision to Hong Kong’s electoral law, which would have banned by-elections for vacated seats in the Legislative Council (Legco). The government had wanted to do this to prevent its opponents from repeating a stunt from last year, when they engineered by-elections to improvise a kind of straw poll on democracy itself.
Never mind that those by-elections drew only 17% of registered voters to the polls. The government is hell-bent on keeping voters away from anything that looks like a referendum. It thinks its very legitimacy is at stake.
Before the July 1st protest, it had argued that the proposed change was urgently needed before Legco’s next session could begin. Now there will be a “public consultation”, meaning a two-month pause in which the government must hope the protesters lose interest or go on holiday.
The delay may cool passions, but not for long. The underlying issue of suffrage in Hong Kong is becoming more divisive as the tenure of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the current chief executive, draws to a close. This July marks the start of Mr Tsang’s last year in office. In 2012 a carefully selected committee of 1,200 members—0.017% of the population—will choose his replacement.
To most Hong Kongers it is a rigged contest. Of the desultory crew of candidates being mooted, the three most likely share a salient characteristic: they are dependably “pro-Beijing”. One of them, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a former president of Legco with a schoolmarmish manner, enjoys a measure of popularity. Another, Leung Chun-ying, is a force in the property world. He is rumoured to have some ideas up his sleeve, which would be a welcome change. But in opinion polls he draws lower numbers than any other candidate under consideration—perhaps because of his close ties to China’s Communists. The emerging favourite, with only marginally better ratings, is Henry Tang Ying-yen, the current chief secretary, whose most memorable recent public pronouncement has been his defence of the despised property tycoons who get blamed for the territory’s extortionate housing prices.
July 1st has been a day of protest since 1998, when it marked the first anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China. But it was only after the huge anti-Tung protest of 2003 that the full power of the annual march was realised. The day is always a long, hot slog. Some years the marchers have been few, and their tempers mild. But other years, the protest ignites. The 2003 explosion owed its intensity to the fearsome combination of SARS, a serious form of pneumonia that appeared that year, a housing bust, knock-on effects in the local economy and a sense that Mr Tung was too incompetent to cope with it all. After Mr Tsang succeeded him in 2005, confidence in the government was partially restored.
This summer housing prices are near their record highs, making the unpropertied classes miserable in a new way. Recent polls by the University of Hong Kong find Mr Tsang’s approval ratings have fallen to their lowest level since he took office. Only 20% of citizens said they were satisfied with his government, down from a high of 57% when he took the job. As Mr Tsang’s stock has fallen, so has Hong Kong’s view of China. Each of the past 14 years the same polling unit has used the handover anniversary to ask Hong Kongers whether or not they feel proud to have become citizens of China. The figures fluctuated only slightly between 2007 to 2010, with each side’s numbers hovering between 48% and 50%. But this year saw a seven-point drop: only 41% felt proud to be part of China.
At the moment, most resentment is local, focused on the chief executive, a few of his officers, and the near future. But if the 1,200-member election committee cannot find a more popular leader, next year’s July 1st rally might dwarf this one.