Nearly every day, the top news in Hong Kong relates to something to do with the city’s precarious “one country, two systems” principle that governs its tricky relationship with Beijing. And today is no different. If one date per year had to be picked where the tensions between Beijing and Hong Kong were put under the spotlight, 1 July would likely be it. While to some in the city, today is simply a public holiday that – weather permitting – will culminate in dramatic fireworks over Victoria Harbour, to many it’s a day of protest.
Established in 1997 to mark the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese, the rather clumsily named Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day is a big opinion divider. Over the years it has seen hundreds of thousands marching in pro-democracy demonstrations that weave their way through the city.
This year is set to look no different. Last night, crowd-control barricades and colourful flags and banners were being set up in Victoria Park and despite the threat of rain, hoards of Hong Kongers are descending there to make their voice heard. Having assumed office this time last year, Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung will be the target of much of the protestors’ anger this time around. With the cost of living in the city increasing and the gap between rich and poor growing, there’s considerable disappointment with Leung – who many consider to be too close to Beijing.
A recent survey found nearly 50 per cent of those questioned had no confidence in their leading government figure and protest organisers are using a recent first-year progress report released by Leung as a tool to rally more support. Indeed, many observers are predicting today’s protest could be the beginning of the end for the chief executive, who chose to make his inaugural speech in Mandarin instead of local Cantonese.
In addition to calls for universal suffrage and more movement towards democracy for Hong Kong’s next elections in 2017, protestors today will be voicing something much more nuanced, and therefore difficult, for any chief executive to control. While housing prices, border controls and the ability to vote will be among the demands, Hong Kongers will also be fighting to maintain a sense of who they are.
With the people of Hong Kong’s willingness to identify as Chinese at a 14-year low, today’s protest isn’t simply about campaigning for political change, it’s also about fighting for cultural identity.
Aisha Speirs is Hong Kong bureau chief for Monocle.