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Hong Kong Reformers Gain in Popularity

As Beijing steps up verbal attacks, pro-democracy political figures' ratings rise.

August 21, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — Mainland Chinese authorities appear to be on a collision course with local political forces eager for greater democracy and opposed to a swift passage of a controversial anti-subversion bill.

A local public opinion survey released Tuesday showed that those against swift passage of the draft bill had vaulted to the top of a list of Hong Kong's most popular legislators, while the popularity of pro-Beijing lawmakers had plummeted.

Independent lawmaker Audrey Eu, who helped organize a massive July 1 anti-government protest, suddenly found herself leading the top 10 list, with a 65% approval rating. She had not made earlier lists.

Liberal Party leader James Tien, whose threat to vote against the anti-subversion bill forced its withdrawal from the legislature last month, rose from seventh to third place with a 61% approval rating. Pro-Beijing politician Jasper Tsang watched his approval rating sink from 52% to 43%.

The day before the survey was announced, a toughly worded commentary in Beijing's official China Daily newspaper attacked two other Hong Kong pro-democracy legislators, accusing them of promoting the region's independence during a political conference in Taiwan last weekend.

"In view of this development, the national security law must be enacted and it must be as soon as possible," concluded the commentary, signed by an apparently fictitious author called Xiao Ping. The lawmakers, Frontier Party leader Emily Lau and Democrat James To, advocate political reform, but they denied calling for independence.

The commentary followed remarks two weeks ago by Zou Zekai, deputy director of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong, who likened Hong Kong's anti-government protests to the Cultural Revolution -- China's often-violent, decade-long political nightmare that ended in 1976. Those comments upset Hong Kong's political opposition, buoyed not just by the size of the anti-government demonstration, but also by its peaceful nature.

Beijing's verbal attacks on pro-democracy political figures run counter to its broader, more measured, response to the recent outpouring of anti-government sentiment in Hong Kong. That response has included a package aimed at easing economic hardship in a region beset with record-high unemployment and deflation.

It is all a far cry from the talk of greater growth made six years ago when Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese sovereignty as a partly autonomous administrative region under a formula known as one-country, two-systems.

One of the stimulus measures -- a gradual easing of access to Hong Kong by mainland citizens -- was expanded further Wednesday when residents of three more cities in the southern province of Guangdong were allowed to visit for the first time as individuals, rather than as part of state-sponsored tour groups.

Beijing's tough line against pro-democracy politicians appears to reflect an assessment that Hong Kong's discontent is driven mainly by economic hardships that have been exploited by the political opposition.

Though some analysts share this view, others believe dissatisfaction with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and a lack of government accountability are powerful issues on their own. Attacking advocates of change could backfire, they predict.

"Beijing wants to reach out to the people of Hong Kong, but you don't do that by attacking them," said political commentator Frank Ching.

Eu, Hong Kong's newly anointed most popular legislator, may put Beijing's view to the test. In an interview this month, she listed her two top priorities as blocking any time-pressured vote on anti-subversion legislation and working for greater democracy.

"We have to force the government to step up the pace of constitutional review," she said.

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