Hong Kong democrats: Time is on our side

By KATHLEEN HWANG   |   Jan. 1, 2004 at 2:37 PM

HONG KONG, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- An estimated 37,000 people turned up for a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on Thursday, giving up their New Year holiday to tramp through the streets in an effort to capture the attention of a government they view as unresponsive and incompetent.

Protestors carried placards calling for the right to elect their own leaders and legislators, and chanted, "Power to the People!"

The marchers represented civil rights groups, democratic political parties, labor unions, religious groups, and individuals with a wide range of criticisms and complaints about Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa's political and economic policies.

The issues were not new, but all political players in Hong Kong were keeping an eye on the numbers, in an effort to gauge the strength of political will of the Special Administrative Region's citizens.

The police estimated 37,000 participants; organizers claimed as many as 100,000.

Since the demonstration on July 1st that drew half a million people and caused the government to scrap a proposed national security bill, a grassroots political movement has been gaining momentum in Hong Kong.

"It's already half a year after the July 1st march, but the government has failed to respond to the people's demands, especially for full democracy," said Richard Tsoi, spokesman for the Civil Human Rights Group, which organized the demonstration.

Tung's administration had pledged to announce a timetable for a discussion on constitutional reform that would include public consultations. Tsoi said the New Year's rally was timed to remind Tung, in advance of his policy address on Jan.7, of his promise.

Pro-democracy activists are quietly building a power base from which they hope to challenge the system that gives Beijing a controlling hand in the selection of Hong Kong's leaders. Tung was chosen by a Beijing-approved nominating committee. More than half of the members of the Legislative Council are chosen by special interest groups.

The Tung administration's economic blunders, poor judgment in selecting political appointees, and inept crisis management have made it an easy target for criticism.

Ironically, mutual dissatisfaction with Tung's leadership has forged an odd bond of sympathy between the leaders in Beijing and the aspiring democrats of Hong Kong.

"The new leaders in Beijing are more open-minded and responsive than before -- more open-minded than Tung Chee Hwa," said Richard Tsoi. "But we need to wait and see. I hope the new leaders can continue to listen to the Hong Kong people, not just the pro-Beijing figures."

Beijing has already offered a number of incentives to help boost Hong Kong's economy, including a free trade agreement with Hong Kong and relaxed restrictions on mainland tourists visiting the city. The measures are generally acknowledged to be having a positive impact.

In his New Year address, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a point of stating that the mainland will allow Hong Kong people to govern themselves, while enhancing economic and trade ties to ensure their prosperity and stability.

The central government has also sent subtle messages that it intends to retain a role in Hong Kong's political affairs, however. Recently, legal experts in the official mainland press have opined that it is the central government, not the people of Hong Kong, who should initiate any constitutional reforms.

"China has changed its position from a wait-and-see strategy to a more pro-active position, to remind the Hong Kong people that it has a role to play," said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. "At the end of the day we have to get their consent."

Still, Law is optimistic about the future of Hong Kong's democratic aspirations. "Time is on our side. Hong Kong is too sophisticated a society to be run by authoritarian leadership. Unless they learn how to develop themselves through an electoral process they won't be able to address the challenges of a modern society."

For Tony, a 22-year-old student from Shanghai who is attending Chinese University in Hong Kong, the demonstration was a novel experience. "In the mainland we don't have a chance to participate in such activities," he said. "This is great!"

Tony doesn't think the mainland is fertile ground for political activism, however. "In Shanghai, people don't have this kind of mentality," he said. "Demanding democracy is not their concern. They care about their personal lives and economic conditions."

Beijing would prefer it if Hong Kong would focus on the same concerns. But that doesn't appear likely.

While the Hong Kong government has failed to come up with any proposals for change, the democrats, by contrast, have demonstrated that they have the willpower, dynamism and strategic skills to push their agenda.

"They are so disciplined. There is a gravity that you don't find in democratic countries," commented Chloe Froissart, 27, who works at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China. "The people are aware that they mustn't make any mistake or the whole effort might be compromised. They are fighting."

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