In the wake of President Hu Jintao’s visit to Hong Kong to mark both the 15th anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese rule and the swearing-in of new chief executive Leung Chun-ying, a visit met with the biggest annual July 1 demonstration in years, The Economist contemplates Hong Kong’s discontent and its implications for the mainland’s own upcoming leadership transition:
China’s vice-president, Xi Jinping, who is all but certain to take over from Mr Hu as China’s party chief late this year, and as president early next, will probably find Hong Kong politics even more troublesome than Mr Hu has. Mr Leung, the new chief executive, has been making an unusual effort to show his concern for Hong Kong’s poor, but if his unpopularity persists in spite of that, it could lead to the kind of crisis that toppled Mr Tung.
Chinese leaders will also worry that political reforms in Hong Kong that are expected to begin in 2017 with the election of a chief executive by “universal suffrage”, will spur demands for similar change on the mainland. The Beijing government will no doubt find ways to control Hong Kong’s shortlist of candidates but, unlike the recent selection of Mr Leung, who was returned by an electoral college consisting mainly of party sympathisers, the public is supposed to have the final say.
This will be less of a worry in Beijing if it turns out Mr Xi is keener on political reform in China than Mr Hu has been. Optimists took heart from the downfall of Chongqing’s party chief, Bo Xilai, in March. Mr Bo was widely seen as politically conservative and intolerant of dissent. There has been no clear sign since then of a warming to the notion of political liberalisation, but in a couple of high-profile cases in the past year, senior regional officials have, unusually, made concessions in the face of popular demonstrations.
As for Mr. Leung, who delivered his inauguration speech in Mandarin instead of the local Cantonese dialect, The Wall Street Journal writes that he enters office at a time of great uncertainty in Hong Kong’s political system:
Hong Kong’s autonomy is supposed to be guaranteed under Deng Xiaoping’s formula of “one country, two systems,” but Mr. Leung consistently emphasizes “one country.” He plans to create a Culture Bureau that will promote love of the motherland, and a “patriotic education” curriculum in the state-funded schools. His lineup of new officials and advisers is from Communist central casting.
More worrying, Mr. Leung and his allies have limited tolerance for dissent. According to his rival for chief executive, during mass protests in 2003 he advocated the government calling out People’s Liberation Army troops stationed in Hong Kong. Last year the Central Government Liaison Office launched jingoistic attacks on academics and journalists to intimidate dissident voices.
Mr. Leung will quickly find out that Hong Kong people won’t stand for this kind of rigged system. On Monday he had to abandon a visit to one district after being cornered by protesters for 45 minutes. On Tuesday, a pro-Beijing district council set up a stage-managed town hall for him elsewhere, but this led to more criticism for breaking his promise to listen to the public. Much as Beijing and Mr. Leung love one-Party harmony, the public has fully embraced the nonviolent but contested nature of democratic politics. The sooner the new chief executive understands this, the more successful his term will be.