A deepening clash of cultures

Protests spread as China’s grip starts to tighten

HONG KONG — A visit by a senior Chinese leader meant to spread goodwill instead has left Hong Kong fuming about the smothering security that locals fear was aimed at muffling the media and protesters.

In the two weeks since the visit, journalists have taken to the streets in protest. Professors have taken out newspaper ads and students demanded the police chief resign. Police and local leaders have been raked over in the legislature.

The uproar is the latest clash of cultures between the controlling, authoritarian government in Beijing and Hong Kong, the financial center and former British colony returned to China’s control but allowed to keep its capitalism, civil liberties and Western-style legal system.

“People are very concerned that their freedoms are being undermined. The whole city is angry,” pro-democracy legislator Emily Lau said at a heated special meeting of the Legislative Council’s security panel last week.

Sparking the outrage were the security arrangements put on for Vice Premier Li Keqiang, a rising star in the Chinese leadership. Hong Kong’s vigorous press complained they were kept far away from Mr. Li during the few events they were allowed to cover and had to compile their reports from government handouts. A few protesters who dared to get close say they were treated roughly by police officers.

While such tactics are standard procedure in mainland China, Chinese leaders are usually more careful not to alienate freewheeling Hong Kong.

Mr. Li’s visit was intended to bolster his image - he’s expected to become premier in 2013 or sooner - and to show the government’s concern for Hong Kong. He announced measures to give Hong Kong companies better access to the mainland market and promote the territory as a trading center for Chinese yuan.

But the heavy-handed security served to heighten concern in Hong Kong that its autonomy is being eroded by a mainland government that does not value the territory’s more freewheeling ways.

“I can understand why people feel unhappy or even angry with the way some of the situations were handled,” Jasper Tsang, a pro-Beijing legislator and president of the Legislative Council, said on a television talk show last week. “I would say this storm you refer to once again tells us that there’s still a difference between the values held by Hong Kong people and the conceptions, the beliefs of our central government.”

The stark differences had been on view in recent month before the security fracas.

Proposals unveiled by education officials in May to introduce patriotic education to “build national identity and develop the pride of being Chinese” have triggered criticisms about brainwashing.

When China’s top official for Hong Kong affairs publicly criticized local civil servants for failing to think long term, many people saw it as meddling.

Hong Kongers have seen freedoms of speech and the press as particularly vulnerable indicators in the 14 years since Beijing resumed control and pledged to use a hands-off approach in governing Hong Kong under the principle of “One Country, Two Systems.”

“In the mainland, many people cannot enjoy these freedoms. Many people say we are getting more and more like the mainland,” Ms. Lau, the pro-democratic legislator, said in Monday’s special panel - at times, an heated confrontation.

Serenade Woo, a local representative for the International Federation of Journalists, told the panel that reporters are worried that Hong Kong police were becoming more like those on the mainland, where journalists routinely are hassled.

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