New Hong Kong leader takes office amid discontent

July 1, 2012 - 12:41 AM
Hong Kong New Cabinet

The Hong Kong Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying, left, speaks besides the newly appointed principal officials during a news conference to announce the lineup in Hong Kong Thursday, June 28, 2012. Chinese President Hu Jintao is due in Hong Kong for weekend ceremonies marking the 15th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule and the inauguration of its third post-colonial leader, Leung Chun-ying. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong's new Beijing-backed leader was sworn in on Sunday amid rising public discontent over widening inequality and lack of full democracy in the semiautonomous southern Chinese financial center.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to take to the streets later in the day in an annual protest that is an occasion for ordinary people to air their grievances over a range of issues.

Leung Chun-ying took office in a morning ceremony overseen by Chinese President Hu Jintao, becoming Hong Kong's third chief executive since more than a century of British colonial rule ended and China regained control of the city 15 years ago. There were sporadic scuffles between demonstrators and police outside the convention center where the event took place.

A demonstrator who tried to interrupt Hu as he began his address was bundled away by security officials. The man, one of the guests invited to the inauguration, waved a small flag and yelled slogans calling for China's leaders to reverse their condemnation of the brutal June 4, 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. He also called for an end to one-party rule in China before security agents swiftly pounced. Hu took no notice and continued to read his speech but the incident marred what was supposed to be a carefully orchestrated visit.

Leung, a 57-year-old police officer's son and self-made millionaire, replaces career bureaucrat Donald Tsang, who took office in 2005 and is barred from another term.

Leung takes over Hong Kong's top job amid swelling public anger over a yawning income gap, skyrocketing property prices and rising unease about mainland China's growing influence on the semiautonomous region.

"We will focus our energies on major and pressing issues," said Leung, who outlined plans to even out Hong Kong's widening inequality. He vowed, for example, to provide more affordable housing and land for property development, though he also said "there is no need for a major reversal of policy."

But Leung could find it hard to push through his social reforms because he takes office with an approval rating far lower than his predecessors, reflecting not only mounting public frustration but also a recent corruption scandal involving illegal additions on his mansion.

Leung was chosen as chief executive in March, winning 689 votes from a 1,200-seat committee of business elites who mostly voted according to Beijing's wishes. Hong Kong's 3.4 million registered voters, who can vote for neighborhood councilors and half of all lawmakers, had no say.

Calls for democracy have been catalyzed by the way in which Leung got his job and by corruption scandals surrounding his predecessor. Ordinary Hong Kongers fear that the political system in place since July 1, 1997 has resulted in the city's billionaire tycoons having too much influence on senior government officials.

Beijing has pledged that Hong Kong could elect its own leader in 2017 and all legislators by 2020 at the earliest, but no road map has been laid out.

Pro-democracy activists were scheduled to hold an annual march later Sunday that is expected to draw tens of thousands. The yearly event began in 2003, when half a million people turned out to protest anti-subversion legislation that was later shelved. The huge number shocked China's authoritarian leaders, who are obsessed with maintaining control. Organizers said last year's event drew more than 200,000 people, although police said the number was much lower.

The scandal over Leung's mansion has added to worries about his integrity because he took advantage of gaffes by rival Henry Tang, including the discovery of a huge, luxurious but illegal basement extension, to win the contest. At the time, he promised that he had no illegal structures but reporters at a local newspaper discovered over the past week that Leung's upscale home in an exclusive neighborhood on Victoria Peak had six, including a small basement.

The scandals have stirred anger among Hong Kong residents, many of whom can only afford tiny apartments.

Leung is not seen as friendly to the billionaire tycoons that dominate Hong Kong and who initially backed Tang. Trained as a land surveyor and holder of a British degree in estate management, he worked his way up to the top of a property consultancy firm.

Some in Hong Kong also fear that Leung is an underground member of China's Communist Party because he was named to lead a committee helping to draft the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution that would take effect on July 1, 1997, while still in his early 30s. Leung denies that and said his volunteer activities helping to develop China's land use rights following the country's economic reform that began in 1978 earned him a good reputation in China.