, Hong Kong, July 1 – Defiant protestors targeted China’s President Hu Jintao in Hong Kong Sunday as the former British colony swore in a new leader and marked the 15th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule.
“I vow to defend the Hong Kong… Basic Law,” said new Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, a millionaire property consultant seen as close to China’s communist rulers, as he read out the oath before shaking hands with Hu.
The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which guarantees the former British colony civil liberties unheard of on the mainland under the “one country, two systems” model set up when it returned to China in 1997.
But Hu’s visit and the inauguration came as discontent towards Beijing surges to a new post-handover high, and security has been stifling for the events, with hundreds of police and giant barricades deployed.
As the president began his speech to around 2,300 guests in a harbourfront convention hall, a protestor repeatedly shouted “End one-party rule”.
The man also referred to the crushing of democracy protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and was rapidly surrounded and taken away as the audience drowned him out with extended applause for Hu’s opening remarks.
The Chinese president said that Beijing’s support for “one country, two systems” and the right of the people of Hong Kong to rule the territory was “unwavering”.
“We will follow the Basic Law… to continue to advance democratic development in Hong Kong,” said Hu, who will step down as part of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in Beijing starting later this year.
But Hong Kong does not yet choose its leader by universal suffrage, and Leung was elected as chief executive in March by a special committee stacked with pro-Beijing business elites.
Protestors have been demanding greater democracy and railing against Beijing’s meddling in local affairs.
Ahead of the inauguration, a group of demonstrators burned Leung’s portrait, shouting: “Battle the Communist Party! We will battle to the end!”
Elsewhere, marchers held aloft a mock red coffin emblazoned in Chinese: “The Liaison Office (Beijing’s representative) governs Hong Kong.”
Hu — who said Friday he hoped to “walk more” and “understand” Hong Kongers’ “life and expectations” — had been expected to attend an earlier flag-raising ceremony on the city’s iconic waterfront.
But his absence was noticeable as three helicopters trailed the Chinese and Hong Kong flags in a flypast over the harbour, the national emblem in front and at least four times larger, and a flotilla of boats steamed past.
The Chinese leader flew out shortly before noon, ahead of an annual rights rally expected to see tens of thousands of people take to the streets.
On Saturday police used pepper spray to push back a few dozen demonstrators who tried to get past barricades more than two metres (6.5 feet) high near Hu’s hotel.
A Hong Kong reporter was also briefly detained by police after shouting a question about Tiananmen at Hu.
Anger has been heightened by the death of Li Wangyang, a leading Chinese dissident whose body was found in his hospital ward in China in June, whose family say the circumstances are suspicious.
But China’s rise has helped spur impressive economic growth in Hong Kong and boost the city’s status as a key financial hub, and tens of thousands of people attended a stadium gala Sunday that featured a People’s Liberation Army parachute display and soldiers marching around the pitch.
“I came here to celebrate the handover,” said Vincent Wong, 35, a construction worker. “As a Chinese person I am very happy.”
Nonetheless tensions are growing between the seven million locals and their northern neighbours.
Hong Kongers accuse an influx of newly rich Chinese mainlanders of everything from pushing up property prices to monopolising school places and maternity beds.
A poll released by Hong Kong University last week showed mistrust towards Beijing at 37 percent, a post-handover high, with Hong Kongers identifying themselves primarily as citizens of China plunging to a 13-year low in another survey.
Discontent against the local authorities is also intense.
Leung, 57, takes over the city at a time of complaints about a widening gap between rich and poor, and home ownership being out of reach for many. He has promised to tackle the grievances.
“If we work together, I am sure Hong Kong — the Pearl of the Orient — will sparkle again,” he said in his speech.