In Hong Kong, dissent has a female voice

Christine Loh's civic group helped flood Hong Kong's streets with peaceful protesters last month. Margaret Ng's careful reading of a national security law tied the government in knots. Emily Lau's upstart Frontier party now calls for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to resign.

What these reformers share, apart from sharp views on basic freedoms, is their gender. To a degree unusual in Asia, women are out front in this summer's "people power" protests in Hong Kong.

Names like Audrey Eu, Gaddis Lee, Anna Wu, and even the venerable Anson Chan may mean little outside this metropolis. But in early July they, and 500,000 marchers, stood up to the Beijing-backed Chief Tung - and Beijing blinked.

Hong Kong's universal education, ethos of opportunity, and international atmosphere have incubated "some pretty extraordinary and able women," as one male academic puts it. Female reformers of many backgrounds are starting to crowd the leadership of civic and legal circles.

"Our similarity is that we are all made in Hong Kong! We are extremely practical people, we haven't been suppressed," says Ms. Ng, a legislator. But, she says, "if men take part in public life, it is expected. Women here have to be better."

The reformers don't see themselves as feminists. They even play down their gender. But these women have gathered forces against Article 23, a bill that would give Hong Kong police vastly greater powers.

After the march, two Tung ministers resigned. Last week they were replaced, setting the stage this fall for a new test of authority in the "special autonomous region."

Now democrats seek a greater "consultative" voice. They want a habit of dialogue with authorities that could lead to talks about free elections in 2007 - something allowed under the governing Basic Law.

Last week a set of Hong Kong scholars - majority female - released a report calling on Tung to revise Article 23 into a single, limited bill. Previously it was divided three ways. The bill seemed to hide the scope of what critics called "draconian" police and security powers including banning groups and jail terms for holding vaguely defined "state secrets" that could simply be embarrassing information.

The spirit of the Hong Kong reform fits into a pattern of female leadership, as described by a late 1990s Harvard University study. It found that current women leaders often emphasize a different set of values from males: consensus, concern for diversity, and an avoidance of authoritarian styles. Yet as author and project coordinator Laura Liswood pointed out, women did not operate only off traditional notions of "compromise," but were willing to take "strong and unpopular stands."

"Hong Kong was the first sweat shop economy, and as females, we rode the crest of the labor-shortages of the 1970s and 80s," says Ms. Loh, whose "Civic Exchange" newsletter is a no-holds-barred probe of Hong Kong's political anatomy. "If you were a girl, it didn't matter. But I don't think this is just a Hong Kong thing; it is a phenomenon around the world."

Perhaps. But it isn't yet a phenomenon in the Chinese Asian world. On the mainland, men run government. The Communist Party did recently elevate the respected Wu Yi to the Politburo. But the ruling Standing Committee are all men. While Shanghai is known for strong females, they are famed for working behind the scenes, inside powerful families.

Taiwan is the other place in Chinese Asia with female reformers. But this is only in recent years, with the election of the Democratic People's Party (DPP).

"Like Hong Kong, Taiwan is an immigrant society," says DPP legislator Bi-Khim Hsiao, who won a seat two years ago. "In the 1970s, there were few women in Taiwanese politics, and they battled intense feelings of isolation. But I ran last year stressing my youth and gender."

The Hong Kong women have their own styles. Ms. Loh is an easy-going veteran organizer, whose hard hitting Internet letter belies a youthful demeanor. Ms. Lau, the first elected female here, is a self-described "tough cookie" - a throaty sharp dresser who one imagines would be comfortable in the Texas Statehouse, should she decide to switch passports. Diminutive Margaret Ng, a brilliant legal light, has a quiet Buddha-like expression, dexterously articulating fine points of law.

Few of the females have banded or bonded in anything like a political women's cooperative. Loh works outside the system. Lau sees political parties as the answer. Others, like Ms. Chan and Ms. Wu, emerged through the Oxford-training of the British civil servant.

Wu headed the equal opportunity office here. She recently lost her job after taking her government to court over a city policy of favoring males in college admissions. Females are qualifying for university seats in such great numbers that males were losing out. Wu said it was discrimination, and filed suit.

Women in Hong Kong say the identity of their city as a place of refuge and transit has also shaped their values.

Lau has a typical story: Her father and mother escaped from Canton in 1948. The father died. The mother had to take "domestic service," which in colonial Britain meant living with the family she served. Lau and her brothers bounced all over Hong Kong, living with relatives. "We were all apolitical, we just wanted to survive," Lau says.

But a kindly uncle made it possible for her to attend the University of Southern California. That landed her in Los Angeles in 1973 during the Watergate hearings.

Those hearings turned her world around. She became a journalist and made her first splash when standing up to Margaret Thatcher in 1984, during a press conference after the Sino-British declaration to hand over Hong Kong.

"I asked her, 'Two days ago you signed an agreement with China that will deliver five million people to the communists. Is this morally acceptable to you?'"

The next Hong Kong moment is in September when the Tung government unveils its "consultation document." Democrats worry the document may simply rehash the unwanted content of the earlier bill.

"What we are saying is, just pass Article 23 without slipping in all sorts of other things," says Ng. "Then we can discuss other security issues separately."

Looking back on the summer of dissent Loh says, "Guys have been important too. They sometimes don't get enough appreciation."

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