HONG KONG — The last time China’s President Hu Jintao visited this former British colony, in 2007, the public mood was positive, buoyed by the approaching Beijing Olympics and a surging mainland economy that was pouring tourist and investment money into the territory.
But Hu, who arrived Friday and is to stay through today to observe a change of local government and the 15th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, is encountering a very different sentiment this time. Public mistrust of the central government in Beijing is at its highest since the handover in 1997, while approval ratings for Leung Chun-ying, the incoming Hong Kong chief executive, have dropped sharply before his inauguration.
Pressing economic worries have contributed to public frustration that has been building for months, both with Beijing and with the political and economic system in Hong Kong since 1997, a system in which special interests controlled by a small circle of tycoons select the chief executive.
“We still cannot choose our chief executive, and that has caused many problems,” said Andrew Shum, 25, who is organizing one of the demonstrations near where Hu is leading meetings. “People don’t trust the chief executive, because they don’t have a voice in voting for him.”
Fifteen years after the handover, Hong Kong faces a wide set of challenges, analysts say: Property prices have soared to their highest levels since 1997; the gap between rich and poor, already the greatest in Asia, is at its highest level in four decades; air pollution continues to worsen; and no clear path has been presented to usher in a system to allow the public to directly elect leaders.
Beijing guaranteed that Hong Kong’s civil liberties, which include independent courts and a free press, would be preserved for the first 50 years after the handover. But many here worry that the way of life is yielding to the flood of people coming from the mainland, either as tourists or immigrants, and to increasing business ties with mainland interests.
Organizers were expecting a large turnout for the annual July 1 demonstration, a day that activists traditionally use to press for action on various social issues. On Saturday, tensions between residents and Beijing were on display when the police briefly scuffled in the evening with a small group of demonstrators in front of the convention center where Hu was attending a banquet with local officials.
A Hong Kong reporter briefly threw Hu’s tightly scripted visit to the semiautonomous city off course Saturday by asking about the 1989 military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. The reporter for the Apple Daily newspaper said he was detained for about 15 minutes after the incident. The encounter was shown on local television.