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Public Discontent Simmers as Hong Kong Readies for March

Concerns over civil liberties and the SARS outbreak may bring the largest turnout since the territory reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

June 30, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG -- The last time Kwok Ka-ki joined a street protest was 14 years ago, when Chinese authorities crushed the budding pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Now the 42-year-old physician is so upset with Hong Kong's leaders that he has decided to go out again. Herman Chan, a 49-year-old suit-and-tie-wearing businessman, understands why. He has never before lifted a protest banner but says he's ready now.

"Now is not the time to stay silent," he said.

Kwok, Chan and thousands of other political couch potatoes are expected to join a protest Tuesday that organizers predict will be the largest turnout for such an event since Hong Kong reverted from British colonial rule to Chinese rule six years ago.

Tuesday marks the anniversary of the transfer of power, and the protest is likely to unfold in the presence of China's new premier, Wen Jiabao, who arrived Sunday for his first trip to Hong Kong since assuming the post in March.

The event originally was planned by a coalition of civil libertarians, pro-democracy and human rights activists to protest a proposed national security law. But it has mushroomed into a far broader expression of public discontent and mistrust directed at Hong Kong's leaders.

Even a massive display of anger and frustration would pose no immediate threat to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa or those around him. The government controls 30 of the 54 seats in the region's Legislative Council, and Tung serves at the pleasure of Beijing's ruling elite, not the people of Hong Kong.

Still, the depth of concern about losing basic freedoms is part of a broader erosion of public confidence in the government's ability to act openly, fairly and efficiently.

"We need more accountability in government," said Kwok, the physician. "But Hong Kong is going the other way."

Such comments underscore a common suspicion about the national security law, which the government expects to introduce for formal debate July 9 and ram through the Legislative Council: that it is aimed as much at stifling dissent as protecting China against foreign enemies.

Hong Kong portrays itself as an open, free and efficient global financial center on the edge of the world's largest, fastest growing economy -- mainland China.

The discontent has been stoked in part by economic and political turmoil that has included a slowing economy, a budget crisis and the SARS crisis. A real estate crash has left many homeowners with negative equity, and record-high unemployment has exasperated trade unions. Add to the mix a whiff of corruption.

Hong Kong medical professionals are upset that the government failed to heed their advice to isolate patients more quickly during the initial SARS outbreak -- a delay some doctors believe cost the lives of at least eight colleagues. The naming of Health Secretary Yeoh Eng-kiong, one of those under scrutiny, to head an investigation into the outbreak is one of several factors sending medical professionals to the barricades.

"It's very unusual for doctors and nurses to do this, but I think you will see thousands out there," predicted Kwok, a urologist who is one of nine physicians organizing the participation of medical professionals.

Big business is upset too because of what it sees as a communications failure that heightened public concern and sullied Hong Kong's image during the SARS crisis.

"We're starting from a hole deeper than it should have been," said Eden Woon, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. "The government information effort was a haphazard job."

The curiosity and mild amusement that met Financial Secretary Antony Leung's marriage last year to Chinese Olympic diving champion Fu Ming-xia turned to outrage against him this year. He was forced to admit he had bought and registered a new Lexus automobile just a few days before he unveiled his new budget, which included a large increase in the already hefty vehicle registration fees.

Although Tung said Leung had committed a "gross error of judgment," he refused to fire him. Leung remains in office -- and under a cloud.

"Everything that's happening in Hong Kong -- SARS, high unemployment, the general condition -- all these things are encouraging all sorts of people to come out and voice their displeasure," acknowledged James Tien, chairman of Hong Kong's Liberal Party and a member of Tung's cabinet.

Hong Kong University political scientist Sonny Lo put it more bluntly.

"People are going [to demonstrate] for one major reason: to voice their discontent with the performance of Tung Chee-hwa," Lo said.

As the shadow of SARS recedes, it is the government's national security bill that stands as the dominant issue. A Hong Kong University survey published Friday indicated that only 16% of those polled backed it.

Since September, the bill's opponents have leveraged international pressure to water it down in ways few had thought possible.

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