HONG KONG – It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
They won’t see it on CCTV in the motherland – it won’t be reported anyway. At least 400,000 Hongkongers, snaking all over Central in absolutely sweltering heat, from early afternoon until deep into the night, and from all walks of life (tycoons excluded), all of them expressing their anger at Hong Kong’s new CEO, pro-Beijing property developer Leung Chun-ying; the notion of “one country, two systems”; their impossibility to actually vote; and last but not least, motherland China.
Definitely this is not what Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping envisaged – as Hong Kong celebrated the 15th anniversary of the handover; 400,000 people, in a city of 7 million, is immense. Nothing could be more graphic than the contrast between two very different appraisals of “one country, two systems”; in the early evening, while the pro-democracy protest still rolled on in Central, and spread to the west of Hong Kong island, a proverbially hyper-pro fireworks display dazzled the throngs massed in Kowloon, soaking up the most spectacular Blade Runner-esque skyscape on the planet.
The outgoing Dragon-in-chief, Chinese President Hu Jintao, came into town to the swearing in of the new CEO – whose job is essentially to maintain the sanctity of Hong Kong’s huge fiscal reserves; to satisfy the key shareholders (as in global corporations and banks); and to apply no-holds-barred top-down management. Not much different from what the imperial Brits did. The problem is the scheme excludes nearly all of Hong Kong’s population.
Hu are these people?
As usual in hyper-choreographed, securitized to death China-style ceremonies, Hu may not have noticed when a pro-democracy demonstrator tried to interrupt him as he began his address, waving a flag, calling for a full condemnation of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and no less than the end of the Chinese Communist Party. The protester was duly led away – accused of being “too loud”.
I watched the investiture of the new CEO with a group of elderly Hongkongers. Whenever Hu, displaying his trademark Madame Tussaud charm, showed up on screen they were furious, accusing him of being a “murderer” (especially during his stint in Tibet). “Whenever he walks there are piles of bodies under his feet”, one of them told me.
Hong Kong’s 3.4 million registered voters are fed up with the stratospheric wealth gap graphically expressed by multi-billionaires flaunting their wealth in contrast to people actually living in cages in Kowloon; income inequality has never been higher over the past four decades. They want serious measures against air pollution. They want proper pensions. They want adequate housing at reasonable prices. And most of all they want to vote. A Hong Kong Spring has been brewing in slow motion for 15 years now.
“One country, two systems” boils down to a tycoon (Tung Chee-hwa), then a civil servant (Donald Tsang), then a self-made millionaire (Leung Chun-ying) acting as the city’s CEO, “elected” by only 689 votes out of a 1,200-strong committee of – what else – business elites, most of them billionaires faithfully obeying the mainland’s agenda and with an eye to their immense profits.
Leung Chun-ying has made a few politically correct noises – as in pledging to rein in out of control housing prices; locals overwhelmingly blame them on wealthy “locusts” from the mainland and their suitcases full of yuan. Yet his own credibility is already compromised – as the top scandal in town is how he had made no less than six illegal additions to his mansion in the millionaire neighborhood of Victoria Peak.
So Hongkongers aren’t holding their breath. They know the most densely populated strip of land on earth is essentially a land speculation Holy Grail. If you are a mega-property developer, your profit margins are literally galactic.
The feeling among the marching 400,000 this Sunday boiled down to an immense frustration about having being handed a non-representative government in perpetual collusion with big business. Virtually everyone points to way more democratic Taiwan or South Korea as examples of what Hong Kong could be in terms of solving its practical problems concerning housing, welfare and the environment.
In the end, the frustration inevitably had to be channeled towards China’s Communist Party. Dragon-in-chief Hu has also made the right noises – assuring Hong Kong that Beijing does care. In theory, Hongkongers will be allowed to elect their own leader in 2017 – and all (not only a few) legislators by 2020. Yet Beijing remains absolutely mum about the deadlines.
It’s fair to assume the Hong Kong Spring won’t stop simmering. And tens of millions in China will be paying close attention. Leung would better do a much better job than his predecessors. Otherwise sooner or later it will be nearly impossible to appease the masses with just a fireworks display.