July 1 Protest

July 1, 1997, officially marked as the day of Chinese annexation of the former British colony Hong Kong, is unofficially the quasi city-state¡¦s day of discontent. Ever since 2003, when a landmark protest brought half a million people ¡V more than 7 percent of the population ¡V onto the streets to demonstrate against national security legislation and the unpopular administration of the China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, the people of Hong Kong have used July 1 to march for a rainbow of causes, from Hong Kong national identity to civic education to the increasingly intense influx of polluted air across the border between Hong Kong and China. But yesterday¡¦s rally ¡V the 10th iteration of the 7/1 marches, as they are known in Cantonese, an offical language of Hong Kong since the 1980s ¡V was startlingly different in the monolithic unity of the demand being made. The only thing being asked for was representative leadership.

July 1 Protest
Protesters rallying for democracy on July 1, 2013 carry British-era Hong Kong flags and a banner that reads "Chinese Colonists Get Out!!" to mark the 16th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Braving the ominous clouds and lashing rain of a passing cyclone, thousands of marchers began assembling in Hong Kong¡¦s Victoria Park from early yesterday. The darkest shadows, however, were not being cast by Typhoon Rumbia but by a widely despised, oligarchic political system that prevents a well-educated and highly sophisticated populace from directly electing its own Chief Executive. The post ¡V it comes with far broader powers than a city mayor but rather less autonomy than a prime minister ¡V has, since 2012, been filled by Leung Chun-ying, who is intelligent, grave and of statesmanlike bearing but deeply unpopular because he is regarded as China¡¦s representative instead of Hong Kong¡¦s. To the great discomfort of Hong Kong people, he made his inauguration speech last year in China¡¦s national language, Mandarin, instead of the Cantonese spoken locally.

Leung owes his tenure to a slim majority of votes made by an elite electoral college, whose 1,200 members ¡V mostly senior business types ¡V are vetted by the autocratic Beijing regime that many locals feel is trying to erode Hong Kong¡¦s autonomy. To its credit, the Beijing regime has not pressed Hong Kong on key issues ¡V the proposed national security legislation that aroused so much ire in 2003 has been deferred, as have plans to introduce ¡§patriotic¡¨ components into the local school curriculum. The Hong Kong government has also taken action to curb areas of tension between Hong Kongers and Chinese, by making it far tougher for Chinese women to give birth in Hong Kong, and slapping a two-can limit on the amount of infant milk formula that Chinese visitors can take with them when they leave.

But without a directly elected leader to safeguard their interests, and with a decades-long mistrust of the repressive one-party state that lies beyond the Kowloon hills, the people of Hong Kong are feeling vulnerable. There has been time for resentment at the farcical manner of Leung¡¦s election, just over a year ago, to build up. The realization that other issues ¡V from income inequality to air pollution ¡V will not be decisively addressed without a popularly elected and accountable leader has also sunk in. That is why the leadership crisis overshadowed other causes on yesterday¡¦s march, with thousands chanting calls for Leung¡¦s ouster and derisively addressing him as ¡§Mr. 689¡¨ ¡V a reference to the small number of votes by which he secured his position.

The total number of protestors has been difficult to establish. The police, who can be relied on to deliver a significant underestimate, put the crowd at 66,000, while organizers claimed that 430,000 people turned out in the wet weather. The University of Hong Kong¡¦s public opinion program came up with a figure of 93,000. Not at issue, however, was the deep discontent that lies at the heart of many in the Asian freest nation. Heard reverberating throughout the protest ¡V as it did in Istanbul¡¦s Taksim Square last month ¡V was ¡§Do You Hear The People Sing?¡¨ from the musical Les Misérables. Hong Kong¡¦s old British colonial flag was held aloft by many marchers, taunting Beijing with the notion that things were better under British rule and also signifying that ethnic Chinese Hong Kongers feel very distinct from their Chinese cousins in terms of culture and identity.

Unsurprisingly, plenty demonstrators held placards denouncing ¡§Chinese colonists.¡¨

Young faces were prominent in the crowd. Leung is so detested by Hong Kong youth that when he showed up earlier this year to confer diplomas at a ceremony at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, several graduating students refused to accept their diplomas from him, while others turned their backs or made rude gestures.

¡§It¡¦s time to come out and speak loudly to say we are not slaves,¡¨ Oscar Yau, aged 20, said at yesterday¡¦s rally. ¡§We all want the right to select the chief executive.¡¨

Hong Kong¡¦s constitution, known as the Basic Law, does permit the eventual direct election of the chief executive and Beijing has said that the 2017 election will be the earliest at which such elections will be contemplated. But naturally there¡¦s a condition, as revealed last March by Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the legal committee of China's National People¡¦s Congress. He said that Beijing would not accept a Hong Kong chief executive candidate unless s/he ¡§loves China¡¨ ¡V party-speak for following Beijing¡¦s line. The Chinese government¡¦s great fear is that this headstrong enclave will elect to its highest position a firebrand such as legislator Leung Kwok-hung, a popular radical democracy activist habitually clad in Che Guevara T-shirts, who would then use the position to attack Communist Party legitimacy.

And yet, ¡§Hong Kong¡¦s political system is already off-kilter. If we don¡¦t have [a directly elected leader], then we don¡¦t have hope,¡¨ says Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong and founder of the campaign Occupy Central, which played a prominent part in yesterday¡¦s rally. The organization aims to gather 10,000 people to peacefully block traffic in Hong Kong¡¦s financial district next year, unless the Chinese government comes up with a convincing road map for a directly elected leader.

As if to emphasize his remoteness from the populace, the Chief Executive spent part of July 1 at a flag-raising ceremony for a small group of invited VIPs. But he responded to protesters on Monday, saying that the Hong Kong government considered it a responsibility to enact political reform and work towards direct elections, and that it would listen to marchers¡¦ opinions ¡§in a humble manner.¡¨

Unfortunately, a significant portion of Hong Kong¡¦s population has no faith that it will do so. ¡§Right now, we question the legitimacy of our leader because he is only representative of 689 people,¡¨ said Chong Chun-wai, a pastor who attended the rally with his son. Chong echoed the views of many in Hong Kong when he appealed for Hong Kong¡¦s self-determination. ¡§There is a confidence crisis because the Hong Kong people don¡¦t trust the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government, and China doesn¡¦t allow we Hong Kongers to elect our own chief executive,¡¨ he added.