As protests unfold amongst Chinese President Hu Jintao’s official visit, Sue Sparks reports from Hong Kong

The protest was significantly bigger than previous years

It has been a weekend of protests in Hong Kong, marking the 15th anniversary of the creation of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), when the city state was returned to China.  A huge number of demonstrators turned out to the annual July 1st march; organisers claimed 400,000 and since the march took over 3 hours to leave Victoria Park, this number is much more plausible than the police estimates of 55,000.  Even a turnout of 250,000 would be remarkable in a city of 7m people.  What was also noticeable was the enthusiasm of passers-by for the march, cheering it on its way.

The Chinese President Hu Jintao made a 3-day visit to Hong Kong, to mark the anniversary and inauguration of the city’s third chief executive since the handover. Protesters followed him wherever he went, but the police largely prevented him from seeing or hearing the demonstrators. Protesters were mainly trying to challenge Jintao over the June 4th 1989 massacre of students and other pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square. They also drew attention to the recent and highly suspicious death of Li Wangyang, a worker and union activist, who had spent 21 years in prison following Tiananmen Square and had lost his sight and hearing as a result of torture. He died in his hospital room on 6th June this year after giving a TV interview calling again for the vindication of the demonstrators.

Protesters were quite imaginative in their attempts to confront Hu, unfurling banners over a motorway bridge on his route and hiring a van draped with posters to follow his motorcade (which the police stopped for ‘security reasons’). One journalist shouted a question about June 4th at him, and was quickly removed by police who claimed he had disrupted public order by shouting ‘too loudly’. This incident is now the subject of official complaints by the journalists’ association.  Demonstrators attempting to confront Hu also had pepper spray used on them by the police, and said that it seemed to be a particularly strong kind brought in from the USA which can cause blindness for nearly an hour.

The July 1st protest is a focus for all kinds of discontents in the city, but this year in particular there were two main reasons for the large response:  firstly, anger over the widening gap between rich and poor here (Hong Kong now has the widest income gap of any developed country) and the rising cost of living including an acute shortage of affordable housing. Secondly, there was a great fear that Hong Kong’s freedom of expression and assembly is under gradual threat from Beijing and its local allies – including C.Y.Leung. Events on the mainland have raised the political temperature: the escape of human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng and the death of Li Wangyang, as well as the turbulence around the Chinese Communist Party leadership succession and the Bo Xilai affair. All this is taking place against a backdrop of frequent mass disturbances and strikes.

People in Hong Kong also suspect that the promise of universal suffrage for the chief executive election by 2016 and for the legislature by 2020 will not be adhered to. At present while half the seats in the legislature are directly elected, half are reserved for special interest groups – mainly businesses of various kinds. The chief executive is ‘elected’ by a 1200-strong committee, which is itself largely a reflection of business interests.  This year it was clear that opinion polls were important – Beijing found it hard to persist with its original candidate when his popularity plummeted amid revelations of extra-marital affairs, illegitimate children and illegal structures in his property, including a vast basement containing a valuable wine collection. He compounded this by claiming the basement was small – when at 2,000 square feet it was more than three times the size of the average Hong Kong apartment.  Ironically, it has now been revealed that C.Y.  (a millionaire property consultant) has no less than 6 illegal structures at his house in the most affluent part of Hong Kong, Victoria Peak.  No wonder people are somewhat cynical about the incoming administration.

Protestors were mostly young, first-time demonstratorsSome of the British media have emphasized the presence of British colonial flags on the July 1st march; though there were certainly some, the idea that this was about nostalgia for British rule is absurd.  The annual march only began to be significant in 2003 and that was because the government had tried to bring in an anti-subversion law which would have seriously restricted civil liberties. Following the huge turnout on the protest that year they retreated and have still not brought in the law.  Of course, the British governed Hong Kong without any shred of democracy and had their own law allowing the banning of political organisations, including the Chinese Communist Party, so it was hardly likely that those demonstrating in 2003 wanted a return to this past.

A sample of this year’s marchers were interviewed by the South China Morning Post on Sunday; of the total 231, 90 were first-time demonstrators and about half were under 30. This does not suggest people who hanker for the old days. My own impression was that the march was mainly young, and in that respect very similar to the large vigil held this year (and every year) on June 4th to mark Tiananmen.  Interestingly, organisers of the vigil estimated that at least 10 per cent of the participants were mainlanders.  Increasing numbers of mainlanders visit Hong Kong every year, mainly to shop, but often they buy books which are unobtainable at home and many have been visitors to a newly-established museum telling the story of Tiananmen.

Unfortunately, there are also many issues which drive a kind of xenophobia in Hong Kong towards mainlanders, including resentment at  wealthy mainlanders buying up Hong Kong property and shopping for luxury goods, fuelling high retail rents which drive out small Hong Kong food shops and restaurants. There is also the perceived pressure on Hong Kong’s health and education services posed by ‘mainland mothers’ who give birth in Hong Kong in order to secure the right of abode for their children.  C.Y.  has cynically called for a zero quota on mainland mothers giving birth in Hong Kong’s private hospitals.  In spite of all the patriotic rhetoric spouted by Hu this weekend, Beijing will of course be happy at anything which divides Hong Kong people from their fellow Chinese citizens – the last thing they want is unity between those fighting for a decent life and political rights on both sides of the ‘border’.

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