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Tens of thousands protest in Hong Kong on handover anniversary as China tensions simmer

Sydney Morning Herald - July 1, 2016

Crystal Tse and Benny Kung, Hong Kong Thousands of Hong Kong residents marched in protest on the 19th anniversary of the financial hub's return to Chinese rule in a demonstration that was aimed at underscoring widening social rifts as the Asian financial hub heads into a year of intense politicking.

Some waved banners criticising Beijing for the cross-border abductions as acts of a "totalitarian" regime, as well as calling for the release of leading dissidents, chanting for democracy and for Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying to step down.

Several hundred scuffled with police outside Government House, with police using pepper spray to keep them back. Organisers said 110,000 people took part in the march, while police put the figure at 19,300.

Organisers of the annual demonstration marking Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule have focused their ire this year at Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, whose term comes up for renewal in March. Leung backed by Beijing, but unpopular at home has faced increasing criticism from democracy advocates as well as some in the pro-business establishment for failing to bridge divides in the wake of student-led protests that paralysed commercial districts in 2014.

In a speech Friday after a flag-raising ceremony to mark the anniversary, Leung pushed back, touting policies to improve people's livelihoods by increasing the housing supply, keeping inflation in check and maintaining low unemployment.

"The Government will make every effort to address the community's varying aspirations," Leung said. "I hope we can set aside differences, find common ground, and try our best to reach a consensus."

Friday's march comes amid a concerted effort to build a united front against Leung and push the Chinese government to consider an alternative candidate to lead the former British colony. That effort is complicated by the emergence of new "localist" groups, who advocate a more confrontational approach against Beijing, sapping support from mainstream democrats while drawing accusations of "separatism" from the government.

The crowd on the march was tiny compared with the hundreds of thousands of attendees of years past, highlighting fractures in the pro-democracy camp since the Occupy protests two years ago ended without securing concessions from Beijing on electing the city's leader. Several localist groups have refused to participate and planned a rival protest against what they say is Chinese encroachment on their autonomy.

The city has been unnerved over the past year by the disappearances of five booksellers who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders. One of the men, Lam Wing-kee, who was detained for eight months by Chinese agents and released last month, criticised Beijing for "violating Hong Kong's rights" through illegal cross-border enforcement operations.

The tactics have raised fears of Communist Party rulers in Beijing eroding the so-called "one country, two systems" formula, granting Hong Kong a high degree of freedom and autonomy since its 1997 return from British to Chinese rule. China has denied wrongdoing.

One of the booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, spoke out about his detention ordeal last month and had been expected to lead the annual protest march from Victoria Park to the city's government offices in Admiralty. Instead, Lam pulled out, citing safety concerns after being followed by two unknown strangers, a lawmaker said.

A senior Chinese official, Wang Guangya, who heads the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, said the booksellers had "destroyed" the one country, two systems formula by publishing banned books in mainland China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, said in a speech on Friday that "no matter what the difficulties and challenges, our confidence and determination towards one country, two systems will not waver". Xi added Hong Kong would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and Beijing would strictly adhere to the law.

In September, Hong Kong will hold its first legislative elections since the Occupy protests. The vote could reveal the extent of divisions in the democratic camp and the level of support for the localist movement.

Some pro-establishment voices have joined the criticism of Leung, urging support for "Anyone But CY," or ABC, when a Beijing-controlled committee of 1,200 city insiders select the next chief executive in March.

Leung told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post earlier this week that he hadn't yet decided whether to seek another five-year term. Those who predict his resignation, "keep proving themselves wrong," he said.

In his speech Friday, Leung urged people to focus on the economy, while defending the government's attempts to control property prices and to help society's "have-nots." Leung said the government would foster communication between "China and Hong Kong's different societies and political groups," without being more specific.

Leung said Hong Kong would preserve the "One Country, Two Systems," framework that has governed the city since the handover, maintaining the rule of law while promoting stable development. He pointed to the growing supply of new homes, which will reach the highest level since 2004 within the next three to four years, as property prices and rents have begun to ease.

China's top official for Hong Kong, National People's Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang, expressed satisfaction with Leung's performance during a visit to the city in May. Zhang urged the city to focus on economic success instead of "distractions" such as demands for greater autonomy. (The Washington Post, Reuters)

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/tens-of-thousands-protest-in-hong-kong-on-handover-anniversary-as-china-tensions-simmer-20160701-gpwu96.html.

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