As they awoke from their hand-over hangover Tuesday, Hong Kong residents were greeted by a sophisticated campaign of persuasion that they have nothing to fear from their new Chinese leaders.
The Beijing-appointed government pledged to ease the housing crunch, improve the schools and help the elderly. Police stopped traffic so anti-communist demonstrators could march. And even as helicopters and battleships from the People’s Liberation Army were taking up positions around the city, Chinese President Jiang Zemin promised to keep mainland interests from interfering in the commerce of this prospering city.
It will be months, if not years, before this former British colony will know how life has changed under the untested Chinese doctrine of “one country, two systems.” But Day One under China rule brought words of reassurance.
Less than 12 hours after the dramatic overnight handover ceremony where the British flag was lowered for the final time, Jiang pledged the territory would continue to adhere to international covenants on human rights and trade and would eventually elect its own leaders.
“A gradually improved democratic system suited to Hong Kong’s reality is an important guarantee for its social and political stability,” Jiang said in the first speech ever offered by a Chinese president in this once-again Chinese city.
As if to test the new regime’s word, a group of about 3,000 protesters marched through Hong Kong early Tuesday, protesting the new government’s decision to scrap the legislature elected by the people in 1995 and replace it with a body hand-picked by China.
Police, acting as if no change of sovereignty had taken place, allowed the march to proceed even though organizers lacked a permit. Police officials said they had been given no new rules for regulating such street demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s hand-picked chief executive for this new Special Administrative Region of China promised progress on such bread-and-butter issues as improving the territory’s school system, providing more help for the aging and dealing with the city’s oppressive housing crisis.
In his inaugural address, Tung Chee-hwa pledged to curb land speculation and build at least 85,000 new apartments each year, so that 70 percent of the residents of this city of 6.3 million could own a home of their own within a decade.
Lack of affordable housing in this, one of the most densely populated cities in Asia, has emerged as a volatile political issue, more explosive than the question of whether protesters can march in the streets.
The calm mood, the pledges by Chinese leaders and a series of made-for-TV spectacles like a boat parade on the harbor and Buddhist festival in a sports stadium all suggested that Beijing was bending over backward to ensure a smooth transition - complete with a rich package of cultural diversions.
A five-day holiday surrounding the departure of the British also contributed to the festive mood in this hard-working city.
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