In Hong Kong, protests divided over leader

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HONG KONG -- Thousands of demonstrators in rival marches crowded through Hong Kong's main shopping district Tuesday to praise or condemn the city's chief executive, who appears to retain the confidence of leaders in Beijing despite a series of controversies at home.

The New Year's Day marches underlined deep political divisions in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory that Britain returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Critics of the chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, accuse him of misleading the public on a controversial real estate issue, and of being a puppet installed by Beijing. Many of his critics also favor greater democracy for Hong Kong, where the chief executive is now chosen by a 1,200-member panel packed with Beijing loyalists; the general public elects half the legislature, while the other half is chosen by business leaders and other groups that also tend to follow Beijing's wishes.

Mr. Leung's backers, mainly organized by groups with lavish financial support from Beijing, contend that he is beginning to address deep-seated social issues here. They also tend to suggest that democracy is a Western concept that may not be compatible with local culture or with rapid economic development.

Supporters of Mr. Leung roughed up two local journalists at a separate rally Sunday; many Beijing loyalists accuse Hong Kong journalists of being biased in favor of democracy. But the marches on Tuesday were largely peaceful.

Organizers of the follow-up march in favor of Mr. Leung on Tuesday estimated their crowd at 60,000 people, while the police put the number at only 8,000. Demonstrators seeking Mr. Leung's resignation were more numerous, with organizers estimating their ranks at 130,000, while the police estimated 17,000.

Mr. Leung, who took office as chief executive on July 1, has faced heavy criticism for concealing during last winter's election campaign that he had secretly expanded his $64 million home without receiving government planning permission or paying real estate fees due on the expansion.

Mr. Leung has been widely accused of hypocrisy because he won the election partly by criticizing his opponent, Henry Tang, for the unauthorized construction of a huge basement under a villa owned by Mr. Tang's wife.

Many Hong Kong residents blame growing immigration and tourism from mainland China for driving housing prices to unaffordable levels, causing overcrowding in local schools and making it hard for young people to find jobs.

Mr. Leung has addressed these issues in his first six months in office by imposing steep taxes this autumn on short-term real estate investments by anyone who is not a permanent resident. He has also banned local hospitals, starting on New Year's Day, from scheduling any more births for mainland mothers.

Continued support for Mr. Leung from Beijing makes it unlikely that he will be forced to resign. In separate meetings with Mr. Leung nearly two weeks ago in Beijing, President Hu Jintao of China and Xi Jinping, who became the general secretary of the ruling Communist Party in November and is slated to become China's next president in March, each said separately that they "affirm" support for Mr. Leung and his administration.

"You have a heavy workload and it is exhausting," Mr. Xi said. "The central government affirms your work."

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