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HK's new leader vows to 'humbly' listen after protesters fill the streets

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's new leader vowed Monday he would “humbly” listen to the public, but some critics are already branding him a lame duck after the restive Chinese city's biggest protest in nearly a decade.

Organizers said 400,000 people took to the streets Sunday to protest against Leung Chun-ying's leadership and Beijing's interference in local affairs, hours after Leung was sworn in as chief executive before Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Police gave a much lower turnout of 63,000 at the rally and march, which took place on the 15th anniversary of the former British colony's return to China. But both estimates were the highest respective figures for eight years.

“My government and I will seriously and humbly listen to the people's demands, no matter through what means or how many people were there,” Leung said about the massive protest.

“We hope we can fight together with the people to fulfill the people's demands,” he told reporters as he visited a local neighborhood, part of a charm campaign designed to address simmering public discontent.

Sunday's protest came as a defiant reception for Leung and a show of popular anger among the seven million people of Hong Kong, a financial hub that retains a semi-autonomous status in China with its own legal and financial systems.

President Hu's weekend visit was held under smothering security, and drew sneers from Hong Kongers as anti-Beijing sentiment surges to a post-handover high in opinion polls.

Leung has pledged to tackle public grievances, including a widening gap between the rich and poor, and soaring property costs which have made home ownership an impossible dream for many residents, especially younger people.

Pictures of the huge sea of people who marched for hours on Sunday in sweltering heat were splashed across Monday's newspaper front-pages, as editorial writers spelt out the challenge for Leung on his first day in office.

“Leung Chun-ying becomes a lame duck,” the Chinese-language Apple Daily News, which is known for its anti-Beijing views, blared in a banner headline.

Even before his term began, Leung had already attracted protests drawing thousands of people decrying Chinese interference in the March election where he was picked by a committee stacked with pro-Beijing elites.

Political analysts say that while it is premature to write Leung off already, he has to navigate a particularly rocky road.

“Usually we expect a newcomer to have a sort of honeymoon period but he will never have one, it will be a difficult period for him,” Chinese University of Hong Kong political analyst Ma Ngok told AFP.

“He didn't start with high popularity even when he was so-called elected,” he said. “His popularity rating hovered around for a while and it nose-dived after the recent scandals.”

Just a week before his inauguration, Leung was forced to apologize over illegal improvements at his luxury home and faced criticism from an inquiry into a conflict-of-interest row involving a government project a decade ago.

A poll released by the University of Hong Kong last week showed Leung's popularity rating falling to 51.5, down 4.2 points from a month ago, with nearly 40 percent of people saying they did not trust the government.

“If he wants to give Hong Kong people a chance (to trust him), he should show himself to be fighting for democracy and not just kowtowing to Beijing,” leading pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said.

The 57-year-old Leung urged people to work with him Monday, as he gears up to lead the city into its first direct election at the end of his five-year term.

Hong Kong does not get to choose its leader via universal suffrage yet. But Beijing has promised a direct election for the chief executive post in 2017, and for the legislature by 2020.

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