HONG KONG’S NEW leader was bundled out of an auditorium by police Monday after he was heckled by protesters, marking a rocky first day in office following the city’s biggest protest in nearly a decade.
The incident comes a day after organisers claimed 400,000 people rallied against Leung Chun-ying and Beijing’s meddling in local affairs, following Leung’s swearing-in as chief executive before Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Police gave a much lower turnout of 63,000 at the rally and march, which took place on the 15th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China. But both estimates were the highest respective figures for eight years.
A session on Monday that was part of Leung’s charm campaign to address the simmering public discontent was forced to end early after he was heckled by unruly protesters before police escorted him out of the community hall.
Television news footage showed a protester, who stood behind Leung, holding up a placard saying the session was merely a “show” before the chaos erupted.
Earlier in the day Leung vowed to “seriously and humbly listen to the people’s demands”, in a bid to reach out to the demonstrators.
Sunday’s protests were a defiant reception for Leung and a show of popular anger among the seven million people of Hong Kong, a financial hub that retains a semi-autonomous status in China with its own legal and financial systems.
President Hu’s weekend visit was held under smothering security, and drew sneers from Hong Kongers as anti-Beijing sentiment surges to a post-handover high in opinion polls.
Protesters burn a picture depicting new Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying as a devil yesterday. (Photo: AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Leung has pledged to tackle public grievances, including a widening gap between the rich and poor, and soaring property costs which have made home ownership an impossible dream for many residents, especially younger people.
Pictures of the huge sea of people who marched for hours on Sunday in sweltering heat were splashed across Monday’s newspaper front-pages, as editorial writers spelt out the challenge for Leung on his first day in office.
“Leung Chun-ying becomes a lame duck,” the Chinese-language Apple Daily News, which is known for its anti-Beijing views, blared in a banner headline.
Even before his term began, Leung had already attracted protests drawing thousands of people decrying Chinese interference in the March election where he was picked by a committee stacked with pro-Beijing elites.
Political analysts say that while it is premature to write Leung off already, he has to navigate a particularly rocky road.
“Usually we expect a newcomer to have a sort of honeymoon period but he will never have one, it will be a difficult period for him,” Chinese University of Hong Kong political analyst Ma Ngok told AFP.
“He didn’t start with high popularity even when he was so-called elected,” he said. “His popularity rating hovered around for a while and it nose-dived after the recent scandals.”
Protesters on the streets of Hong Kong yesterday. (Photo: AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Just a week before his inauguration, Leung was forced to apologise over illegal improvements at his luxury home and faced criticism from an inquiry into a conflict-of-interest row involving a government project a decade ago.
A poll released by the University of Hong Kong last week showed Leung’s popularity rating falling to 51.5, down 4.2 points from a month ago, with nearly 40 per cent of people saying they did not trust the government.
“If he wants to give Hong Kong people a chance (to trust him), he should show himself to be fighting for democracy and not just kowtowing to Beijing,” leading pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said.
The 57-year-old Leung urged people to work with him, as he gears up to lead the city into its first direct election at the end of his five-year term.
Hong Kong does not get to choose its leader via universal suffrage yet. But Beijing has promised a direct election for the chief executive post in 2017, and for the legislature by 2020.
“Hong Kong doesn’t belong to just a small group of people, it belongs to everyone, so I hope everyone can be a part of it,” said Leung, who dressed down in an orange T-shirt as he met locals in a town hall-style meeting.