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Hong Kong struggles with growing public discontent

12 july 2011, 12:29
Hong Kong's economy is booming but its government is facing an increasingly angry public frustrated with its policies and soaring property prices, and analysts warn the discontent is set to rise, AFP reports.

Nearly 220,000 people hit the streets on July 1, according to organisers, to vent their anger at a slew of issues, in the city's biggest rally in seven years, showing the deepening unpopularity of chief executive Donald Tsang.

Officials quickly shelved a controversial by-election bill in the wake of the rally, amid a chorus of criticism that Hong Kong was bowing to Beijing.

Any perception of such kowtowing is a key concern among many of the city's seven million residents, who enjoy civil liberties not seen in mainland China.

"It's the way that the government has been handling things and they think they can push things through without public consultations. All this adds fuel to the whole (anti-government) movement," political scientist Ma Ngok said.

"People are wary that Beijing are getting more and more hands-on in Hong Kong affairs... which may mean more control on Hong Kong's freedom," Ma, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AFP.

The shelved proposal stemmed from the resignation of five lawmakers last year, which triggered by-elections seen as an unofficial referendum to pressure Beijing to speed up electoral reform in the southern Chinese city.

The five were re-elected subsequently despite low voter turnout.

The government argued the new law was meant to prevent public funds being wasted but critics said it was designed to avoid a repetition of the criticism that was heaped on Beijing during the by-election.

The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 but it retains a semi-autonomous status, maintaining its own political and legal system.

"It is clear that the government is kowtowing to Beijing and sacrificing the basic right of the Hong Kong people to please Beijing," said lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, better known by his nickname "Long Hair".

Research group Hong Kong Transition Project has warned that the level of dissatisfaction with the government is "very similar" to the level in 2003, when a record 500,000 people took part in the annual July 1 march.

The unexpected show of people power was considered a key factor behind the early resignation of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa the following year.

Protesters at this year's march called for Tsang, whose term as chief executive expires next June, to step down as his administration struggles to curb Hong Kong's rising housing prices and growing income gap.

The two issues have become a major headache for Tsang's government.

"The discontent will certainly continue to grow unless the government can come up with concrete action to deal with this public dissatisfaction," said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at City University of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has the least affordable home prices in the world, outpacing London, New York and other major cities, according to an international survey, with average home prices in the teeming city rising about 24 percent last year.

Buying a home in Hong Kong costs more than 11 times the city's average salary, according to US-based consulting firm Demographia, which said median home prices in the city averaged HK$2.58 million ($331,000) late last year.

The government has introduced new taxes designed to remove speculators from the market and freed up more land for development but have largely failed to cool prices.

"People are angry with the widening gap between the rich and poor, and young people are frustrated with the lack of upward social mobility. Increasingly they feel house ownership is something beyond them," said Cheng.

Property prices are the main factor in the financial hub's growing income gap, which the United Nations Development Programme in 2009 pegged as the world's biggest among wealthy economies.

The city is famous for stunningly wealthy tycoons but it is also home to hundreds of thousands of workers who live on wages as low as $2 an hour, forcing the government to introduce its first minimum wage law in May.

"There were a lot of piecemeal measures, but the general sentiment is that the government hasn't done enough to tackle the wealth gap," said Ma of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

By Beh Lih Yi

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