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Chinese leader marks 10-year anniversary of Hong Kong's handover

Saturday, June 30, 2007

HONG KONG -- Chinese leader Hu Jintao played pingpong, did a Mongolian dance and became the target of a pro-democracy protest Friday, kicking off a three-day visit to mark the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China.

Hu praised the former British colony for enduring an often-bumpy first decade of Chinese rule. But he steered clear of touchy subjects like the city's increasingly smoggy skies and demands for full democracy.

"I am sincerely happy about Hong Kong's achievements since returning to the motherland 10 years ago," Hu said after stepping off his plane. "I'm even more confident about Hong Kong's future."

Before Hu dined at the residence of Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang, about 20 democracy protesters tried to march to the venue but were stopped by a wall of police just blocks away. The activists chanted "Give power to the people!" and carried pictures of Hu with an X over his face.

"If he doesn't want to face Hong Kong people, why did he come here?" asked Leung Kwok-hung, a protest leader and lawmaker who set fire to Hu's picture.

Hong Kong was handed back to China on July 1, 1997, after being ruled by the British for 156 years. The Chinese agreed to give the city a wide degree of autonomy under a "one country, two systems" formula.

The territory was allowed to keep its capitalist economy, British-style legal system and civil liberties, though critics say media self-censorship is common. But China -- like Britain -- hasn't allowed Hong Kongers to directly elect their leader and entire legislature.

Beijing has yet to say when Hong Kong -- one of Asia's most stable and well-educated societies -- will become fully democratic. And Hu didn't bring up the issue during a busy day that included a pingpong match with a teen champion at a training center for elite athletes. Hu ended the session by slamming the ball past the crewcut boy with glasses.

"You can tell he's played before. He has practiced," the teen, Chiu Chung-hei, told reporters.

Hu also dropped in for tea at the cramped apartment of a construction worker and his family. The man's daughter said her mention of a recent trip inspired Hu to do a special performance.

"He did an impression of Mongols dancing. He heard that I went to Mongolia and said, 'Oh, they dance like this,' and then did the impression," the daughter, Leung Wing-kei, a university student, told reporters.

Hong Kong's first decade under Chinese rule got off to a rough start. The Asian financial crisis erupted a day after the handover and spread throughout the region. Hong Kong got hammered and was finally recovering when it got hit by the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. The disease killed nearly 300 people here and ravaged the city's tourism industry.

But the vibrant city has bounced back, and the economy is humming again -- largely because of its close ties to booming mainland China. Last year, Hong Kong's stock market surpassed New York as the second most popular place -- after London -- to float new stock listings. The biggest new listings came from China.


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