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HONG KONG DIVIDED: Protesters demand that the new chief executive step down
THE installation of Leung Chun-ying on Sunday morning as Hong Kong's third leader since the 1997 handover was followed that afternoon by tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets calling on him to step down.
The juxtaposition of these two events reflects the deep-seated divisions in Hong Kong today, 15 years after the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty, with the territory's citizens enjoying rights and freedoms available nowhere else in China under the formula "one country, two systems".
The new chief executive, popularly known as CY, had won a bitterly contested election campaign with former chief secretary Henry Tang, who initially had the backing of Beijing as well as of the Hong Kong business community.
Unlike Tang, a prominent third-generation businessman, Leung, the son of a policeman, became a successful real estate surveyor by dint of hard work. Not the socialising type, CY preferred to stay at home and grow vegetables in his yard.
As a result, he is not well known in Hong Kong and is viewed with suspicion by many, who believe that he is an underground Communist Party member -- an allegation he has repeatedly denied.
Rising social tensions are a direct result of the growing gulf between rich and poor, with the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, having reached a record high of 0.537, well above what is considered to be the danger level.
Ironically, the new chief executive, who grew up in a poor family and who has promised to fight for the underprivileged, in particular by providing low-cost housing, has become the target of protesters.
The immediate cause is a scandal over illegal structures in his house -- structures that he had denied existed. He has since taken steps to remove them, including a car park cover and an unauthorised trellis.
Critics have turned the question of illegal structures into an integrity issue. However, the underlying reason for his low support level stems from suspicions that he is a communist, and that his assumption of office signifies China's real takeover of Hong Kong.
Although Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing agreed to keep the colonial government intact. The Chinese government knew of Hong Kong people's aversion to communism. After all, most came to Hong Kong as refugees from the communists or were the children of such refugees.
The first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was a shipping magnate whose family was close to Taiwan. The second, Donald Tsang, was a British-trained civil servant.
Both were clearly not communists. They were highly popular when they assumed office but over time, for different reasons, both became highly unpopular.
But Leung did not have close connections to either Taiwan or with Britain. Instead, when talks on the colony's future were held between Britain and China in the 1980s, Leung was clearly on the Chinese side.
Since his early 30s, Leung had been appointed by China to serve on important committees. He became the secretary-general of the Basic Law Consultative Committee at age 34, tasked with helping to draft Hong Kong's constitutional document, which was enacted by China's parliament in 1990. As a result, he is very much identified with China in the public mind.
Actually, Leung is perhaps uniquely qualified to be chief executive. He knows well the history of the Sino-British negotiations and understands the Chinese position on Hong Kong well. He also has an intimate understanding of Hong Kong's underlying social issues and sympathises with the underprivileged.
In fact, his executive council, or cabinet, is the first since 1997 with no representatives of big business interests.
Leung has announced that the council will no longer break for the summer, but only recess for two weeks. He is a workaholic and expects members of his team to be the same.
The day of his swearing-in, he announced that he would visit all 18 districts in Hong Kong within his first few weeks in office, beginning Monday, a public holiday, and that he would "listen to people's views and aspirations and work together with them to address deep-rooted problems in a pragmatic manner".
In his inaugural speech, he said his top priorities are to "develop the economy, improve people's livelihood, promote democracy and build a more prosperous, progressive and righteous society".
But without the trust of the people, he cannot do any of those things. So his first job must be to restore his credibility and win their trust. Much depends on the outcome of that endeavour.