Hong Kong Leader Vows to Listen After Mass Protest
07/01/2012| 08:45pm US/Eastern
HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's new leader vowed Monday he would "seriously and humbly" listen to the public, but some critics are already branding him a lame duck after the restive Chinese city's biggest protest in nearly a decade.
Organizers said 400,000 people took to the streets Sunday to protest against Leung Chun-ying's leadership and Beijing's interference in local affairs, hours after Leung was sworn 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. However, both estimates were the highest respective figures for eight years.
"My government and I will seriously and humbly listen to the people's demands, no matter through what means or how many people were there," Mr. Leung said about the massive protest.
"We hope we can fight together with the people to fulfill the people's demands," he told reporters as he visited a neighborhood amid a campaign intended to address public discontent.
Sunday's protest came as a defiant reception for Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 sea of people who marched for hours Sunday in sweltering heat were splashed across Monday's newspaper front pages, as editorial writers spelled out the challenge for Mr. Leung on his first day in office.
"Leung Chun-ying becomes a lame duck," the Chinese-language Apple Daily News, which is associated with 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 yet, 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 said.
"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."
A week before his inauguration, Mr. Leung was forced to apologize 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 Mr. Leung's popularity rating falling to 51.5, down 4.2 points from a month ago, with nearly 40% of people saying they didn't 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 Mr. Leung on Monday 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 doesn't get to choose its leader via universal suffrage yet. However, 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, dressed in an orange T-shirt as he met residents in a town hall-style meeting.