If July 1, 2003 was a watershed event in Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing, what will follow July 1, 2012?   The Hong Kong and central governments were shocked and alarmed at the half-million marchers who turned out on Reunification Day 2003 in protest against the official attempt to push through national security legislation as mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law.  Beijing responded with a decision to intrude more openly in Hong Kong’s political life and accelerate measures for economic and social integration (June 20, 2012 post).

        If the central government behaves as it usually does when its authority is challenged, then Hong Kong can only look forward to more of the same because the crowd on July First this year was comparable to 2003 and almost as angry.  And if the reasons for the overflow crowd on June Fourth this year were uncertain, those on July First were spelled out in clear and simple terms all along the way:  by the marchers themselves and the signs they carried.  It was a protest against mainland political ways and the means being used to promote them here … with special reference to Hong Kong’s new “red” Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.  For the first time since these July First marches began, in 2003, the Civil Human Rights Front organizers announced in advance that the main target would be the Chinese Communist Party.

TURNOUT

           The organizers claim 400,000, which was closer to reality than the police claim of 63,000.   The number of marchers this year was in any case far greater than last, which was by all counts the largest turnout since 2003.  Protesters last year were provoked by the government’s proposal to ban by-elections (May 28, 2012 post).   But whatever the police may want to claim, they were clearly not prepared for last Sunday’s turnout.  Organizers had applied for a 50,000-marcher permit and police arrangements, comparable to last year, were made accordingly.  The march begins in Victoria Park and the six soccer pitches that had filled to capacity on June Fourth filled up again before starting time at 3 p.m.  But as police closed the westbound lanes to vehicular traffic along the main route from the park, these immediately filled with pedestrians who began walking the route on their own.  Side streets leading away from the park soon filled up as well with people who didn’t want to wait their turn for hours in the sweltering heat to join the main line of march out the park.  Everything was free-form from then on, with improvised traffic arrangements to match. 

          The organizers’ sound truck and banner that usually lead the march were lost in the crowd and so were the small advance groups that move out ahead.  After an hour or so of complete gridlock, the police had no choice but divert all eastbound traffic and allow marchers to walk along the tram lines down the middle of the road as well. From the upper deck of one of the stalled trams, it looked like a gigantic tidal wave rolling forward along the street to fill the empty lanes.   A three-line police formation tried to halt its advance so oncoming traffic behind them could pull over and move out of the way but a group carrying Democratic Party banners was first to arrive at the line and refused to stop.  Arms and legs flailed about for awhile until the marchers broke through.  There were no arrests.  Cars, taxis, and the trams that were unable to find a way out in time, stopped where they were while the crowd swept around them.          

          Parties and groups that usually walk together were also scattered throughout the crowd — except for the most “radical.”  Fa Lun Gong (the spiritual sect banned everywhere else in  China) has a spirited marching band that usually brings up the rear.  This year, several thousand People Power supporters marched last behind the band but they had to wait until sundown to begin.  Most everyone else arrived at Hong Kong government headquarters downtown by 8 p.m., just in time to shout protest slogans at the fireworks as they lit up the harbor.  People Power and a few other groups marched on for another hour to Beijing’s Central Liaison Office where they finally called it a day shortly before midnight.

TARGETS

        Had Beijing wanted to minimize its impact on the proceedings and ease pressues on the new Chief Executive, President Hu Jintao might not have come to town to officiate in person at Leung Chun-ying’s July First swearing in ceremony.  Or President Hu might have avoided saying in his speech that each and every article of the Basic Law must be adhered to.  Or he might at least have avoided his review of the People’s Liberation Army garrison here and the unprecedented provocative show of force it represented.  And the PLA’s parachute jumpers needn’t have performed in Hong Kong’s traditional Victoria Park place of protest against the PLA’s June 4, 1989 action in Tiananmen Square.  The defiant effect was nevertheless all but ignored.   A passing tropical storm delayed the Victoria Park jump from June 30 to July 2, when everyone was recuperating from the day before.   

           Consequently, because of Hu’s high-profile visit, there were two days of protest instead of just one because he was scheduled to leave town at noon on July First, before the big march began, and activists wanted to be sure he got the message.  For him it was a gigantic black and white banner placed, after tortuous negotiations with the police, at the entrance to the main ceremonial meeting hall where guests gathered for a banquet on June 30.  The banner featured only one Chinese character:  冤  meaning injustice.  It referred to the alleged suicide of June 4, 1989 mainland activist Li Wangyang and protesters’ demand for an honest inquiry into the circumstances of his death last month (June 20 post).  Attempts on June 30 to storm the barricades surrounding the entrance were turned back with waves of super-strength pepper spray.

        As in previous years, July First marchers represented all kinds of social and economic issues and interests from animal rights to Lehman Brothers investors who want all their money back.  But a condition for participating in the march was, as always, agreement with its overriding political aims, as determined during negotiations between organizers and participants.  The themes this year were:  end collusion by the communist party, Hong Kong officials, and big business; defend freedom, struggle for democracy.

           There seemed to be fewer creative props and skits this year or maybe they, too, were just lost in the crowd.  The main message carried by marchers was written on the paper flags and Apple Daily’s full page protest slogans, all handed out free as usual beforehand.  The flags read:  one person, one vote; abolish Functional Constituencies; no to Article 23 (national security legislation).  Many attached the paper-flag handouts of Hong Kong’s new “autonomy movement” as well.  Apple Daily’s slogan for the day,  “we don’t want smooth-talker Leung Chun-ying,” was illustrated with an exceedingly long-nosed caricature of Leung signifying that like Pinocchio, his nose grows longer with every falsehood he tells. The reference is to Leung’s growing credibility and integrity problems as he tries not to offend anyone or admit to any wrongdoing.  Some improvised placards were made from Time Magazine’s cover photo and headline asking:  “Can Hong Kong Trust This Man?” …   with a big “No” written across the photo in answer to the question.

        Many protesters also carried the Li Wangyang “injustice” slogan printed for the previous day’s protests and Tiananmen featured in many other slogans.  Said one handout:  “June Fourth Has Never Stopped and You Could Be Next,” with reference to the looming Article 23 legislation.  Press freedom was another issue, including fears about growing self-censorship and anticipated future restrictions under Leung’s leadership.  

            Yet another was the new national political education syllabus that is being made mandatory for all elementary and secondary school grades.  Teachers and students have waged a year-long protest against the “brainwashing” they fear will ensue and have won some concessions.  One group of secondary school students carried a big banner saying “we don’t want government officials writing our curriculum for us.”   The only real humor was dark, seen especially in literature handed out along the way.  Leung and his just announced principal officials were portrayed in various unflattering guises, mostly colored in red and dressed in the style of revolutionary communist party comrades. 

         The South China Morning Post’s mini-survey of 231 July First marchers found dissatisfaction with the government, Leung’s integrity problems, and the death of mainland activist Li Wangyang to be the main reasons for their participation.  Half were young, under 30, and over half felt marching could make a difference (July 2). 

        Apple Daily’s mini-poll of 210 people found their reasons for marching were:  to protect Hong Kong’s core values (28%); protest the injustice suffered by Li Wangyang (26%); demand CY Leung’s resignation (16%); protest Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s governance (14%); and strive for universal suffrage elections (10%).  Marchers greatest fears were that CY Leung would enact Article 23 national security legislation (48%); and that other rights and freedoms would be restricted (18%) (July 2).

AN INAUSPICIOUS BEGINNING

         Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive could hardly have had a worse beginning.  Initially, he enjoyed a substantial degree of goodwill and perhaps still does because of his concerns about poverty and housing.  Between last October and his March 25 selection, every opinion poll showed him to be not wildly popular but more so than his main rival.  During the three months since then, however, issues of trust and credibility have resurfaced and his difficulties in forming a new governing team are probably a good indication of what lies before him. 

         Leung’s attempt to fast-track his bureaucratic expansion plans was blocked by a single abstained vote in the Legislative Council, withheld by his erstwhile supporter Regina Ip (May 14 post).  She will be up for re-election this September and needs to attract votes from middle-of-the-road moderate conservatives.  Probably for that reason, she struck a surprising independent stance saying she wanted legislative procedures to be respected.  Her anticipated appointment to Leung’s cabinet has therefore been “delayed,” although her vote made the difference only because four other pro-establishment legislators were either no-shows or voted no.    He had hoped his entire new team could be sworn in along with him on July First.   But the sight of Leung’s main top official line-up, introduced to the public on June 28, no doubt did as much as the presence of President Hu Jintao to provoke July First marchers. 

          Retired top civil servant Anson Chan said Leung had missed a “golden opportunity” to include pan-democrats among his new team of officials and non-official cabinet advisors.   Two among them  –  academic Anthony Cheung Bing-leung and lawyer Anna Wu Hung-yuk  –   actually did enter political life as democrats in the 1990s.  But Professor Cheung left the Democratic Party years ago and as the lure of official appointments beckoned, their pro-democracy interests faded until now they are indistinguishable from all others in the official entourage.    

           To CY Leung’s credit, however, he did apparently try to reach out beyond the “safe” circle.  But he cannot appoint whoever he wants andBeijing is apparently still exerting the same heavy hand as before with respect to top appointments.  The clearest case is that of Ada Wong, widely reported to have been among his top choices to head the new Culture Bureau he plans to create once the Legislative Council approves his plans as it surely will. 

          Despite her politically correct loyalist family background, Ada Wong has many pro-democracy friends.  She was even seen among the activists and politicians handing out literature from their roadside stalls last Sunday.  And she has been heard to say, in public, that Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils instead of representing grassroots opinion on local matters, as originally ostensibly intended, have been turned into “cheer leaders” for official government policies.  Not surprising then that devout loyalist Tsang Tak-sing, who presides over the District Councils from his Home Affairs Department and will continue to do so, might want someone else to manage cultural affairs after they are separated from his oversight.  In any event, “loyalists” reportedly vetoed Wong’s appointment. One of Tsang’s loyalist Home Affairs deputies is slatted to head the new bureau that democracy activists have already dubbed the ministry of propaganda.   And so it went.  Leung’s “new” governing team looks much like the same old conservatives and loyalists that have become the post-1997 norm.  They also make his promises about governing for all Hong Kong seem hollow even before he begins. 

             Another recent blow to Leung’s credibility would scarcely merit honorable mention elsewhere.  But added to the widespread belief that he is lying about not being a communist party member has been the discovery that he, too, has “illegal structures” on his property. The formal name here is “unauthorized building works.”  Readers may recall that the candidacy of his rival Henry Tang finally collapsed after the revelation that he had an unacknowledged illegal underground pleasure palace.  There is also widespread suspicion that it was if not Leung himself then his fellow property surveyors who must have leaked the blueprints for Tang’s illegal basement to the press.  

              Ming Pao Daily had scooped that story after months of digging and after more months of the same discovered that Leung’s half-billion HK$ residence (one of two properties he owns in Hong Kong’s most exclusive district) also has UBWs:  a 240-square-foot basement, a grape vine trellis, driveway canopy, and so on.   He had always denied such lapses, and then tried to talk his way out of responsibility for them once they were outed two weeks ago  –   which is what inspired the Pinocchio caricature. 

         So Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive is off to a rocky start.  The big business oligarchs whose candidate he displaced will only be part of his troubles if he tries to fulfill his main campaign promises.  But if he retreats on poverty and housing, he will forfeit the goodwill he accumulated along the other side of Hong Kong’s political divide.  Even if he does succeed in defusing public anger over social and economic disparities, however, he will still have to confront the tensions being produced by Hong Kong’s increasing resistance to Beijing’s increasingly overt political interventions.  So far Leung has refused to discuss all such political contradictions or even acknowledge they exist, whch is typical of the entire loyalsit camp.  

              Meanwhile,  Hong Kong’s democracy movement is being reinforced and taken over by a younger generation that seems as energetic as its predecessors ever were and knows more about politics on both sides of the border.  One of the cleverest handouts last Sunday was a full-page graphic introducing Ah Yeh   阿爺 .  Ah Yeh means grandfather, the ultimate Chinese family authority figure and is Hong Kong’s favorite nickname for the central government in Beijing.  Cartoons illustrated the institutional links between China’s communist party leaders, their governing bodies, and Hong Kong counterparts –  with its Legislative Council allocated the smallest of spaces at the very bottom of the page.

        The clearest clue to these deepening political tensions was provided about the same time radicals were being turned back at the banquet barricades on June 30.  It was late afternoon and a scholarly forum was drawing to a close just a few blocks away.  Around 100 people had gathered to hear academics and politicians discuss the esoteric subject of “coalition government” as an institutional remedy for Hong Kong’s political gridlock.  The forum was organized by SynergyNet, a moderate think-tank set up by Professor Anthony Cheung when he was making his transition out of Democratic Party politics. 

           One of the group’s current younger leaders ended the forum with a rousing comment that his mentor would surely disavow in his new role as CY Leung’s Secretary for Housing.  In summation said one of his successors, we should be allowed to govern ourselves.  He noted Beijing’s new post-2003 interventions and said they had only resulted in Hong Kong’s increasing resistance to increasing mainland-ization.  His solution:  return to the 1980s conception of one-country, two-systems (or at least what Hong Kong understood it to be).  “We can govern ourselves,” he said, “in accordance with our own values.”

       That Hong Kong should be allowed to govern itself without mainland interference is, of course, exactly what Beijing was determined to prevent in 2003 when it steered Hong Kong onto a faster track designed to end in full political integration by 2047 when the Basic Law expires. Hong Kong is still talking about the 1997 one-country, two-systems handover formula in literal terms, as if it was suspended permanently in time.  For Beijing’s one-size-fits-all party-led unitary system of government, talking about genuine political autonomy is anathema, tantamount to subversion, as Beijing’s Basic Law guardians like to say.

         To date, neither CY Leung nor anyone on his governing team has given any hint that they are aware of these growing political contradictions.  Responding to the July First protest, his Number Two (the new Chief Secretary Carrie Lam) said that Beijing officials were not interfering in local governance but only trying to express their “care” for Hong Kong … (Commercial Radio, July 4; SCMP, July 5).   Sudden enlightenment is probably out of the question so if it comes at all it will be incrementally, by force of necessity …  as when the Chief Executive-elect felt obliged to pledge last week that he would not restrict Hong Kong’s freedom of political expression.  His promise obviously was not enough to allay suspicions or reduce the July First turnout.  But hopefully, the police will at least do a better job next year of reconciling their determination to underestimate feet-on-the-ground with the traffic arrangements necessary to accommodate them.   For now, however, the underestimates have succeeded in convincing loyalists and politically correct editorial writers that 2012 was a “small march” of no political consequence.

suzpepper@gmail.com