When Leung Chun-ying was elected as the new chief executive of Hong Kong on March 25, it went down as the day Beijing put another nail into the democratic aspirations of this semi-autonomous region of 7.1 million people.
In a society defined by a pro-democracy and pro-Beijing divide, Leung was chosen by a minuscule election committee widely regarded as loyal to the Chinese Community Party. “It was an animal farm election,” Michael Chugani, an influential Hong Kong political commentator, told me.
Leung will be sworn in on July 1, ending the administration of Donald Tsang, the bow tie-wearing current chief. Leung, 56, will then become the third chief executive of Hong Kong since this former English colony was given back to China in 1997.
Since his election last March, Leung has mostly spent the last three months trying to charm Hong Kongers. He hasn’t succeeded, deeply distrusted for his pro-Beijing allegiance. As Leung Kwok-hung — a maverick member of the Legislative Council and better known by his nom de guerre “Long Hair” — told me: “Any leader who comes with the blessing of Beijing won’t serve the people of Hong Kong.”
Hong Kongers are getting angrier and more discontent with the lack of political rights, including the right to democratically elect their leaders. “If you walk in the streets you can have all the democracy you want — say whatever you want; you can do what you want to do — the only thing missing in Hong Kong is the right to vote for your leaders,” said Michael Chugani.
The right to vote — and the resistance to Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s affairs — has been for a long time the political cause of Leung Kwok-hung, who I met in his office in Legco. With all sorts of Che Guevara memorabilia on his desk and posters covering each inch of the four walls of his office, “Long Hair” doesn’t hide his admiration for the legendary Latin American revolutionary of the 1960s.
A founder of the League of Social Democrats and a member of the Legislative Council representing the New Territories East, Leung Kwok-hung doesn’t trust the so-called Beijing road map to Hong Kong democracy. “The road map proposed by Beijing is uncertain and it is still at risk,” he said. He refers to Beijing’s pledge that would allow Hong Kong to elect in 2017 its political leaders, including the chief executive. “Beijing will try to introduce some kind of legislation in order to control the nomination of chief executive candidates or some of the legislation,” he said.
There is an increasing hostility of Hong Kongers to just about everything that comes from mainland China, and it is a hostility that is testing Beijing’s patience. Many Chinese leaders regard Hong Kongers as unpatriotic and ungrateful. Last year a leading Chinese academic, Professor Kong Qingdong of Peking University, caused a major uproar when he described Hong Kong people as an “ungrateful” bunch. The good professor — who is a 73rd generation descendant of Confucius — didn’t mince his words. He called Hong Kong people “dogs” and “bastards”.
The perception in Beijing that Hong Kong doesn’t feel part of China has been measured in a series of studies conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program. Last year, according to one study, the number of residents identifying themselves as Chinese citizens rather than as Hong Kongers has sunk to a 12-year low. The study also showed that Hong Kong people are feeling less and less proud to be Chinese citizens. In 2011 only 41% said they are proud to be Chinese, a drop from 48% to 50% in 2007-2010.
Trying to contain this anti-Chinese mood, Beijing has decided to grab the bull by the horns. Last year on instructions from Beijing, Hong Kong is introducing a new “national education” curriculum to inculcate patriotism in the younger generation. A top-ranking Chinese official didn’t leave any doubt about the aims of the new school curriculum. It is “necessary brainwashing”, he said.
But it is not only mainland China Hong Kongers fear. They are also increasingly anxious about major social problems, especially housing and growing economic inequality.
Housing unaffordability today is “the most pressing social problem in Hong Kong”, says C.K. Lau, a former editor of the South China Morning Post and now university academic. A 2011 study by the US consultancy Demographia showed that Hong Kong’s house prices were the least affordable in the world. The study speaks of the Hong Kong housing ownership as “severely unaffordable”.
In the last two years house prices have risen by more than 70% while the median household income — according to government figures — has remained virtually unchanged at HK$20,000 (around A$2624) since the handover in 1997.
The late Milton Freedman — the father of neoliberalism — once described Hong Kong as the “world’s freest economy”. It’s nothing to cheer about. As has happened in other neoliberal economies, Hong Kong is — when it comes to wealth distribution — one of the world’s most unequal societies.
Inequality is something that deeply worried Christine Loh, a former government legislator and now chief executive of think tank The Civil Exchange. In Asia, Hong Kong “has the widest Gini coefficient, and that means something”, she told me.
A standard measurement of inequality of income and wealth, Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient has exceeded the 0.4 figure regarded as an indicator of growing social tension. Lo says that Leung needs to look at “our political economy and government policies to see if we over-favour the rich”. In the last few years “poverty has become visible” in Hong Kong, she says. Around 1.26 million Hong Kongers live in poverty.
There is no doubt Leung Chun-ying has a gruelling political and social challenge ahead. And among many of his challenges he will have to make sure that “One Country Two Systems” — regarded as a safeguard to Beijing’s total interference in Hong Kong’s affairs — keeps its integrity more or less in place. Increasing concerns about this policy demise are not exaggerated. After all Beijing has been reminding Hong Kongers this is just a “temporary and transitional arrangement”.
The touchy political dilemma and the social malaise of Hong Kong is worrying the renowned writer Nury Vittachi, a key figure in the city’s literary scene. “Hong Kong people are very sophisticated, very aware of democracy, but the authorities in China are very anxious not to allow full democracy in Hong Kong,” he told me. “Hong Kong is on a collision course.”
*Antonio Castillo is a journalism lecturer at the University of Sydney and Hong Kong Baptist University