Protesters target Hong Kong leader on handover anniversary

HONG KONG (AFP) - As Hong Kong marks the 16th anniversary of its handover to China on Monday, hundreds of thousands are set to protest against the city's pro-Beijing leader amid growing frustration over the pace of political reforms.

The demand for universal suffrage, as well as livelihood issues such as a widening income gap and soaring property prices, are expected to drive the massive rally as protesters focus their anger on unpopular Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying.

"The main goal of the rally is to push through for genuine democracy and to ask for Leung Chun-ying to step down" Jackie Hung of the Civil Human Rights Front which is organising the protest told AFP.

Ms Hung said Hong Kongers are fed up with Mr Leung and his administration, adding she expects to see more than 400,000 people march from the city's landmark Victoria Park to its glittering financial district of Central.

The annual protest comes as a survey published by the Hong Kong University on Friday found that only 33 percent of Hong Kongers took pride in becoming a Chinese national, the lowest level since 1998, as the territory chafes under mainland rule.

Mr Leung was appointed by a pro-Beijing committee last July, promising to improve governance and uphold the rule of law in the former British colony of seven million people.

He is also charged with overseeing the transition to universal suffrage which the city was promised by 2017, though critics say little or no progress has been made on the issue as the deadline draws nearer.

Mr Leung and his administration have been plagued by scandals from the start, including controversy after illegal structures were found at his luxury home after criticising rival Henry Tang over illegal structures at Tang's home.

Residents are also unhappy over property prices which have surged over the past few years due to record low interest rates and a flood of wealthy people from mainland China snapping up homes, while widening income inequality has become a cause of major concern.

In an effort to address his declining approval rating, which fell to 46.2 percent according to a poll conducted by the Hong Kong University released on Wednesday, Mr Leung published a report card this week boasting of his accomplishments which he said addressed "several thorny issues" in a short period of time.

These included placing a limit on the amount of baby milk formula that may be exported to the mainland after residents complained of severe shortages, and stopping an influx of pregnant mainland mothers from giving birth in the territory.

Tensions between Hong Kongers and their mainland visitors have soared in recent years and the measures were seen as an attempt to address such concerns.

"Our administration is here to serve the whole society. Give more space and time to the government" to complete its tasks, he said on Friday.

But critics say the report card and his words will do little to dampen support for the July 1 rally.

"This year, the cry for Leung Chun Ying to step down will be very loud because he doesn't seem to have achieved much in one year," Democratic Party lawmaker Emily Lau told AFP.

The biggest issue that Mr Leung made no progress on was working towards universal suffrage, Ms Lau said.

"This is the burning desire for many Hong Kong people," Ms Lau said, adding that even Mr Leung's unpopular predecessor, Donald Tsang, brought up the issue of democracy in Hong Kong with Chinese leaders.

"Leung also gave the people the impression that Beijing is really his master and he's not here to look after our interests," she said.

"The uncertain direction of political reform" is one of the main reasons why people will take to the streets on Monday, Sonny Lo, head of the Department of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education told AFP.

"The government has not reacted positively to public demands for a faster pace of democratic reform", he said, adding it "really adds fuel to the fire".

A July 1 rally a decade ago forced the government to shelve extremely unpopular security legislation after up to 500,000 people took to the streets.