TOPICS : Hong Kong reasserts ‘people power’

Robert Marquand

Doubts about the ardor of Hong Kong’s residents for greater freedoms may have been settled Thursday on a stiflingly hot and muggy day as at least 400,000 people marched quietly from a sports park to central government offices. The stunning turnout on the first anniversary of Hong Kong’s “people power” movement destroyed key assumptions held in official circles that last year’s epochal march of 500,000 of was due only to frustration over the handling of the SARS epidemic and a bad economy. Thursday’s turnout of grandmothers, young parents, punk-rockers, and stockbrokers was twice the size organisers had predicted. And it took place in spite of China’s campaign this spring to nullify the calls for voting rights expressed by pro-democracy factions. The march ensures that Hong Kong will continue to be a thorn for Beijing. Moreover, while Hong Kong people are famously non-confrontational, many marchers expressed firmly that they want direct elections in 2007, even though Chinese officials ruled against this in April.

For defenders of the status quo in, Thursday represents something of a wake-up call, analysts say. Huge masses marching openly on a blistering day, at a time when the economy is improving, and against a leader appointed by Beijing, can’t be reassuring to vested interests. Groups from business elites to Beijing officials had hoped for a low turnout and a yawn by a population they have often characterised as focused on commercial success. But with crucial elections coming in September for Hong Kong’s miniparliament might even control the legislative body here for the first time. In the week leading up to the rally, democracy leaders put out a confusing set of messages. Some described July 1 as a time of reconciliation or a celebration. Others said it was a solemn protest. Yet in talks with several dozen marchers, most articulated clearly why they were there, and sent a basic message: They wanted chief executive Tung Che-hwa to step down, and they wanted democracy and voting rights in 2007.

A year ago, the marchers were largely clean-cut, white-collar professionals. This year’s group included more working class. The turnout Thursday indicates a broadening of ideas of freedom of expression and voting among the general public, says Rose Wu of Civil Human Rights Front. People filed into Victoria Park near Causeway Bay for five hours, many wearing white, the Chinese color of mourning. Many sported umbrellas with the word “suffrage,” cooled themselves with fans that read “power to the people,” and shouted “Tung Che-hwa, please leave!” They carried signs that read “Democracy Road.” Kids ran through the crowd with popsicles, and stewards handed out free water. A study released this week by the Hong Kong Journalists Association looked at the city’s 14 leading newspapers from Jan. 28 to March 8. Of all headlines during that period only 15 per cent back the pro-democracy position.

Mainland officials say that while Hong Kong people are free to march, and those that do are not unpatriotic, no decisions have been made about whether march organizers are unpatriotic and thus unfit for office. — The Christian Science Monitor