Hong Kong goes to polls with many fuming over China influence

HONG KONG Fri Sep 7, 2012 12:54am EDT

1 of 2. Retired teacher James Hon Lin-shan, who has been on a hunger strike for 112 hours, rests inside a tent during a demonstration against the launch of national education outside government headquarters in Hong Kong September 6, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - A wave of protests in Hong Kong ahead of elections is posing a major test for the city'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, Hong Kong's legislature will have a more democratic flavor - it has been expanded from 60 to 70 seats, with just over half of them to be directly elected in Sunday's polls.

The results are likely to reflect recent anti-China sentiment, especially over a plan for a school curriculum extolling the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party.

Thousands of people have demonstrated outside government headquarters for a week demanding the school program be scrapped and forcing Leung Chun-ying to cancel what was to have been his first major international engagement as Hong Kong's leader at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Russia.

School children, teachers, parents and ordinary citizens have denounced the curriculum as Communist Party propaganda glossing over the darker aspects of Chinese rule, hitting a nerve in the former British colony that remains proud of its freedoms 15 years after returning to China.

The protests have included hunger strikes and the parading of a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue erected in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during 1989 protests, outside government offices. The demonstrations have thrown a spotlight on a new generation of activists determined to have their say.

"He feels that just by repeating the same lines, the problem will go away," public affairs consultant Lo Chi-kin said of Leung, who is seen as pro-Beijing. "But Hong Kong civil society doesn't work like this anymore."

"These post-80s and -90s young people will not just go away after hearing the government utter the same old lines. They really want a part in the decision-making process ... and if you don't give them an equal chance at being a part of that process, the only way is for them to take to the streets."

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 influence in political, media and academic spheres.

The latest uproar represents yet another headache for Beijing, after Chinese President Hu Jintao appealed in July for Hong Kong to maintain unity, with Beijing's own leaders grappling with an imminent leadership transition after the controversial ousting of former party heavyweight Bo Xilai.

QUESTIONS

Although the outcome of Hong Kong'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.

Over a busy week, Leung and his team have been fire-fighting on a number of fronts including housing, education and the issue of visitors from the mainland flooding in to the city, to assure the public Hong Kong's interests are paramount.

Leung said he'd reached a consensus with Chinese authorities in six cities to re-assess and grant Hong Kong a greater say over the granting of permission to millions more Chinese people to visit.

Last year, 28.1 million mainland Chinese visited Hong Kong, almost four times the city's population, stoking concern about the ability of the city's infrastructure to cope [ID:nL4E8JV3IR]. Hong Kong residents blame Chinese visitors for pushing up prices and congestion.

"This is the first time we have reached such a consensus that we must have a mechanism and principle in place that considers Hong Kong's capacity and not affect the lives of Hong Kong people," said Leung.

Authorities have also signaled a softening of their stance on the education program, leaving open the possibility of compromise. Leung has also launched a scheme to reassure residents angry about property prices and a yawning wealth gap, by offering new plots of land for flats to be sold only to Hong Kong residents [ID:nL4E8K627X].

Nevertheless, despite such efforts, uncomfortable questions are likely to be at the forefront of many voters' minds.

"'Can we trust this government? Can we trust its abilities? Can it rule?'," Baptist University professor Michael DeGolyer, who has been charting attitudes toward China since the 1997 handover, said of the thoughts of many Hong Kong people.

"These are the questions that lots of people will be coming out to vote for."

(Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)

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Comments (2)
Abulafiah wrote:
I have said several time before that the people of Hong Kong were happier under British rule tahn they are under Chinese rule. Tibetans too are unhappy under Chinese rule.

This is something that should SEA nations should keep in mind, especially with China clearly bent on territotial expansion. The people of Hong Kong and Tibet have good reasons to resent Chinese occupation – they lose their freedom, their basic human rights, and instead get endless communist propoganda and corruption.

Sep 07, 2012 1:51am EDT  --  Report as abuse
ncshu2 wrote:
Regarding to Abulafiah’s comments, Hong Kong was indeed a civil society and its people enjoyed far more freedoms under the British colonial rule, compared with the totalitarian communist regime north of its border. However, the British colonial government did not applied the same democratic principles of government enjoyed so much by British people, to its colony in the far east—Hong Kong. Under the British rule, universal suffrage was never allowed. During the colonial time, the governor of Hong Kong was designated directly by the British government and the legislature was not fully democratically elected. Though Hong Kong people held British passport at the time, for a visit to Britain, they had to apply for a visa first. Quite an insult, isn’t it? Ironically after British handover of Hong Kong to China, Hong Kong people does not need the beforehand application of visa for a visit to Britain anymore. They can automatically obtain a tourist visa. Had the consecutive British governments in more than 100 years granted the same democratic rights enjoyed by its own subjects to the Hong Kong people long before the negotiation about handover, the situation would be much better. The communist government of China then would have to accept democracy in Hong Kong as a reality and legacy of the former British rule.

After 1997 handover, Hong Kong benefited economically from the tighter connection with the mainland China. Most obviously the tourism industry aiming the travelers from north of its border employs a considerable part of its labor force, particularly those without higher education and the investment and buyer from the mainland China helped to recover the loss in real estate market after the Asian financial crisis. But these benefits does not come without a price. The side effects now have become manifested. The travelers from the north has now incurred a burden on the infrastructure of the island city and the booming real estate market has rendered the housing among the most expensive in the world. Moreover “patriotic education” plan in the Hong Kong school curriculum is just another effort from the communist government north of the border to mark its influence on the self-governed capitalist island city. That really tests the will of Hong Kong people to keep independent regarding their own private right regarding to next generation’s education. Referring a difficult issue concerning most of Hong Kong people to a whole city referendum would be a good and sensible option before the legislature were fully democratically elected, I think. Facing increasing call for democracy from the mainland people, whatever the outcome of the referendum, I think the mainland central government has to bear it as far as the referendum does not concern with issue of the sovereignty.

Sep 07, 2012 11:10am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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