Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying canceled a trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, his first scheduled overseas visit, as a proposed national education program led student protesters to stage a seven-day demonstration.
Leung, scheduled to attend the meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, this week, scrapped the trip hours before his departure to “focus on domestic duties,” according to a government press release yesterday.
Protesters began camping out at the government headquarters on Aug. 30 demanding that Leung abandons plans for national education classes that they said portrayed an overly favorable view of Communist Party rule in China. Tens of thousands of parents, students, and social activists marched through Hong Kong on July 29 to oppose plans for the lessons.
“Leung needs to come out and face the students,” said Lau, a woman who would give only her surname out of privacy concerns. “If his intention was to listen, he would have listened days ago.”
Lau, who said she works as an office messenger, and her four-year-old grandson were among several thousand listening to speeches critical of the government at Hong Kong headquarters yesterday evening. A police officer at the protests estimated 2,000 people were in attendance yesterday evening. A spokesman for the Hong Kong police wasn’t immediately available to confirm the estimate.
The annual APEC meeting is usually attended by the region’s leaders to discuss issues including trade liberalization and economic integration.
“Under normal circumstances, you can’t avoid this meeting,” Ivan Choy, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said by phone yesterday. “This will raise a lot of speculation. Does it mean there are serious governance issues in Hong Kong?”
Demonstrations against the new school subject have taken place several times since July 30, with thousands braving the rain on Sept. 1. Some protesters have camped out at the government office, with about a dozen on hunger strike. Yesterday, the crowds spilled over into Tim Mei Avenue, which runs adjacent to government offices.
“National education is one of the things that he has to deal with,” Eva Chan, an organizer for the National Education Parents Concern Group, said in a phone interview yesterday. “The protest is getting a lot of momentum” and the government is under pressure to address parents’ concerns, she said.
Leung’s popularity has sunk to the lowest level since he was picked to run Hong Kong in March. His support rating dropped to 49 out of a possible 100 score in a survey of 1,019 adults conducted by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme from Aug. 14 to Aug. 18.
Leung on Sept. 4 urged protesters to join a government-appointed committee to discuss their concerns. The chief executive will announce new policy initiatives in the next two to three days, Radio Television Hong Kong said yesterday.
“Canceling the trip is just for show,” said Leung, a student who also asked not to use her full name, who came to the site after school with two classmates. All three were wearing green checkered school uniforms. “This is the sixth day this is going on -- shouldn’t he have come out earlier if he wanted to listen? He still hasn’t come to face the people”
Public discontent in Hong Kong has also risen with a widening wealth gap and surging home prices. The government announced a range of property measures on Aug. 30, including a proposal to restrict some home sales to locals and the speeding up of approval for apartment sales.
Home prices have jumped 88 percent since the start of 2009, spurred by record low-interest rates and purchases by Chinese investors. Savills Plc said this year that Hong Kong is the world’s costliest place to buy an apartment.
During his election, Leung pledged to narrow a wealth gap that has widened to its worst since records were kept in 1971. Average gross household income of the poorest 10 percent fell to HK$2,170 ($280) per month in 2011 from HK$2,590 in 2001, according to a June 18 census report.
Leung also had to contend with criticism over his choice of members for the Executive Council, the city’s Cabinet. Former Development Secretary Mak Chai-kwong resigned less than two weeks after he took office over a corruption investigation. Mak’s successor Paul Chan was criticized for being a director of a company that partitioned an apartment for rent.
On July 1 when Leung took office, also the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, about 112,000 people marched on the streets to demonstrate for higher minimum wages, human rights in China and protest against income disparity.