Thousands protested against Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying as pressure mounts against the Beijing-backed politician who has been embroiled in an illegal construction scandal since taking office in July.
Thronging the streets on New Year’s Day, crowds of people, some dressed in black with colourful banners and wearing long-nosed Pinocchio masks, chanted “Leung Chun-ying step down” in a rally that snaked several kilometres towards government headquarters.
While Hong Kong is a largely stable financial hub with a strong rule of law, the political heat has risen over Leung’s failure to adequately explain seemingly innocuous building work on his home, corroding public trust and raising suspicions he may have covered up the scandal last year as he campaigned for the leadership.
“CY Leung does not have the ability and credibility to handle even his own personal scandals. How can he lead Hong Kong in a proper way with political and economic development?” said protest organiser Jackie Hung.
Leung said last month he had been negligent and apologised for how he handled questions over his illegally built basement. Such work is common to maximise living space in space-starved Hong Kong, but similar minor violations have ensnared several prominent officials over the past year.
Organisers put the turnout at the protest at around 60,000, though police said 17,000 showed up.
In a statement, Leung said the government would “humbly” listen to the public’s views. Several thousand of Leung’s supporters also staged a pro-government new year rally.
China’s senior leaders including premier Wen Jiabao have warned of Hong Kong’s “deep rooted conflicts” in the past, though Beijing has so far publicly endorsed Leung’s administration when he made a duty visit in December.
In a stormy half-year since taking office, Leung has also had to contend with a raft of policy challenges including an unpopular pro-Beijing education curriculum that was later shelved, high housing prices, and an influx of mainland Chinese visitors.
The former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.