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Hong Kong May Be in the Eye of a Storm

Present calm might not be an end to the political crisis but rather a pause as protesters decide how hard to push under the specter of Tiananmen.

August 12, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — It's been a month since the last of three major demonstrations challenged Hong Kong's ruling elite, but those in power here take little comfort in the ensuing quiet.

They know more rough times lie ahead.

They also know that the July protests triggered an earthquake -- one that has left Beijing's handpicked chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, seriously weakened, his seemingly unassailable majority in Hong Kong's legislature vulnerable and the government's ability to prevail on issues no longer assured.

These sudden and unexpected shifts appear to have stunned Tung's opponents as much as the government itself.

Emboldened by their success in blocking a tough anti-subversion law, demonstrators are unsure how hard to press for more change and how much Beijing's new leadership will tolerate.

The present calm, people tracking events here believe, signals not an end to Hong Kong's political crisis, but the eye of a storm as everyone pauses to digest the enormousness of what has happened.

"Nothing can compare to 9/11, but on a lesser scale, that's what has happened in Hong Kong," said Liu Kin-Ming, a senior executive at the Apple Daily newspaper, which opposes Tung. "All the givens have changed. It's hard to know at this point what it all means. But it's big."

The size of the protests, one of which drew an estimated half a million people into the streets last month, and the extent of government failures on several issues have already led to calls for Tung's resignation and immediate moves toward universal suffrage. There is also talk of overhauling Hong Kong's quirky political system -- a jury-rigged mix of parts of Westminster-style democracy minus any real public accountability -- that is the result of an unresolved debate between Britain and China when the British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 as a quasi-autonomous administrative region.

So far, Beijing indicates that its top priority is stability, a sign that people eager for greater democracy argue means change is possible if done carefully.

"If it's handled well, the agenda is clear and Hong Kong is peaceful and under control, I think Beijing might accept it," said Audrey Eu, an independent legislator and prominent critic of Tung's government.

Since China's new president, Hu Jintao, encouraged greater openness to help contain the pneumonia-like SARS outbreak in China earlier this year, some people believe the risks of a crackdown are low as long as the opposition remains peaceful and Beijing is not openly provoked.

"I'm sort of hopeful about the new leadership," said respected civil rights lawyer Gladys Li. "I'm hoping they are prepared to have a fresh look rather than see this as an anti-China ploy."

Others are less optimistic.

"This will provoke antidemocratic sentiments in Beijing," predicted Hong Kong University political scientist Sonny Lo, who has closely tracked the region's gradual integration into mainland China.

The absence of any central leadership to the mass protests and the seemingly endless variety of grievances expressed by those on the streets have also prolonged the debate about the next move.

As a result, six weeks after the largest public demonstration in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989, it remains highly unclear just where events in Hong Kong move from here.

The common denominator among demonstrators appeared to be frustration at the perceived arrogance and ineptitude of Tung and his government, yet activists are divided about what to do about it.

Recently, a disparate group of Hong Kong activists, including outspoken opposition figure Emily Lau, seemed to launch itself on a collision course with Beijing by forming a group whose main stated goal is forcing Tung's resignation. Despite the depth of discontent, however, the move has so far drawn only a moderate response.

Much of the disillusioned so-called silent majority who marched July 1 seems willing to give Tung another chance after his pledge to listen more to the public.

More active government opponents argue that Tung is just the personification of a flawed political system that needs more democracy, more accountability and political parties with policies, platforms and the chance to share real power.

"Spectacularly unsuccessful," said Li of the existing system. "There is a complete disconnect between the government and the governed."

Some argue that allowing Tung to continue in office is the best possible proof the existing system doesn't work.

"As a tactic, it's probably better for the democrats to have Tung up there," said Liu. "He's very stupid."

Allowing Tung to remain also avoids any immediate clash with Beijing, advocates of this tactic note.

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