This July 1, we will be marching to the beat of different drums

Michael Chugani says next Monday will see one set of protesters pitted against another, but the ultimate loser may well be Leung

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 8:15am

How many will march to mock Leung Chun-ying as a despised leader who should be dumped? How many will attend loyalist-organised events to mock the marchers as turncoats who would rather undermine the government than celebrate the 16th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China? On Monday, we will know.

Turnout size takes on extra weight this year. For the first time, the loyalists are competing head-on with the July 1 marchers for hearts and minds with carnivals, shopping discounts and a pop concert. March for democracy under the sweltering sun or shop for discounted designer clothes in air-conditioned comfort? That is the question.

Organisers will, as usual, inflate turnout numbers. The police will, as usual, deflate them. Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, dubbed the "sudden democrat" for staying silent about democracy while in government but becoming passionate about it after quitting, has said she will attend the march. When she joined a democracy march in 2007, she sneaked off to a hair salon after 10 minutes. Well, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. At least, she took the first few steps.

The July 1 protest march has now become a proud Hong Kong tradition. But the main thrust of this year's march baffles me. The annual event made its name in 2003 when 500,000 protested during the dark days of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, a property slump, a financial crisis and the government's push to enact unpopular national security legislation. The theme was clear: anger at the inept leadership of Tung Chee-hwa.

Subsequent marches mostly centred on the push for greater democracy. But this Monday's march takes aim more at Leung the man than his policies. Many Hongkongers despise him, that's for sure. They let this cloud their judgment of his achievements.

Earlier this week, he issued a progress report on his first year in office. It was not bad - ending mainlanders giving birth here, dealing with the milk powder shortage, stopping parallel goods traders, tough measures to cool the property market, land for affordable housing, and agreeing to a poverty line. He even drew bipartisan praise for his handling of the Edward Snowden affair.

But his report drew more boos than applause. In fact, protest organisers are using it to galvanise people to join. Critics slammed him for giving scant attention to universal suffrage. Leung believes livelihood issues should take priority over a public consultation on universal suffrage, which he says can wait until next spring. Opinion polls do show people care more about livelihood issues than democracy.

But the delay has put him on the defensive. He has done more on livelihood issues in his first year than was done in the entire terms of his predecessors. Still, his popularity has plunged to the depths suffered by Tung during the dark days of 2003.

March organisers expect a massive turnout, to demand Leung's downfall. If it does match that of 2003, there's only one explanation: it doesn't matter how much Leung does to improve the lives of the people - many still despise him.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host.