HONG KONG (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people protested in Hong Kong on Friday ahead of a citywide election, posing a major test for the city’s new leader as voter discontent fuelled by anger over perceived Chinese meddling threatens to reshape the political landscape.
This time round, Hong Kong’s legislature will have a more democratic flavour - it has been expanded from 60 to 70 seats, with just over half of them to be directly elected on Sunday.
But the results are likely to reflect a recent upsurge in anti-China sentiment, which has been exacerbated by a plan for a school curriculum extolling the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party.
Thousands of people have demonstrated outside government headquarters for the past week demanding the school programme be scrapped, 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.
On Friday evening, the crowds swelled further as tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, many dressed in black, denounced the curriculum as Communist Party propaganda which glossed over the darker aspects of Chinese rule, hitting a nerve in the former British colony that remains proud of its freedoms 15 years after London handed it over to Beijing.
“I am really scared (about) this national education,” said a retired fireman in the crowd with his five-year-old grandson. “They really aren’t talking the truth. They are telling a lie to the children.”
Organisers said 120,000 people showed up, while police put the figure at 36,000.
The protests have included hunger strikes and the parading of a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue which was erected in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during the 1989 demonstrations and crackdown.
The demonstrations have also 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,” Lo Chi-kin, a public affairs consultant, said of Leung, who has had deep-rooted ties to China since his youth. “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 outbreak of discontent 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.
Although the outcome of Hong Kong’s election will not affect Beijing-backed Leung’s position, political analysts say recent controversies and distrust towards Beijing 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 in future.
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. 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 to not affect the lives of Hong Kong people,” said Leung.
The authorities have also appeared to soften their stance on the education programme, leaving the door open to compromise and dialogue.
Leung has also launched a scheme to reassure residents angry about property prices and a yawning wealth gap - offering new plots of land for flats which can only be sold to Hong Kong residents.
But despite such efforts, uncomfortable questions appear 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 towards 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.”
Additional reporting by Stefanie McIntyre; Editing by Andrew Osborn