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New star power for Hong Kong's democracy struggle

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2006


Audrey Eu never imagined public life, let alone fame. But she's become something new in Hong Kong: A politician with star quality.

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She's a lawyer - the former head of the Hong Kong Bar who believes deeply that Hong Kong will not get full democracy unless it fights harder. She's also got glam: more than six feet tall in a small-body society, charisma, and a top-shelf fashion sense. What's more, she's scandal-free in a pork-riddled system, and scores points as a devoted mother and wife.

Altogether, it's a package that makes Ms. Eu sought after like native-son film star Jackie Chan. When 300,000 people marched down Queen's Road last December for universal suffrage - "Audrey" was at the front, waving, and later mobbed by teens and dowagers alike.

As a main force and the main face behind the creation of the "Civic Party" this spring, Eu is emerging as a name in Asian politics.

She comes out of a grass-roots protest movement that rose in 2003 to demand self-rule and rights. Eu articulated why it made good business sense for Hong Kong to govern itself; indeed, she linked the idea to the survival of Hong Kong's special identity.

Now, a central question is whether that spirit can be translated into an effective political party. The Civics want genuine democracy, not the watered-down version where Beijing controls the levers of power. That puts party leader Eu and her compatriots at uneasy odds with Beijing, despite their moderate nature.

"We say very clearly that our aim eventually is to be the governing party," Eu says. "We feel we have to be honest about it, and logical about it.... If a party supports democracy and social justice ... the values we champion, eventually you have to work toward that goal and encourage that responsible position."

Yet current election rules frustrate that goal. The saying here is that Beijing doesn't want to fix Hong Kong's elections - but it does want to know the results ahead of time.

"If Hong Kong had a general election under universal suffrage, Audrey would be the next chief executive," says Sing Min Shaw, a leading political writer. "That is a tribute to the common sense and uprightness of Hong Kong people. Unfortunately, our system is rigged."

Despite a cheerful persona, Eu can get very serious, very quickly.

"If the Hong Kong people feel that, well, democracy is something that is going to happen anyway, it is just a question of time, so let's wait for it and not incur the wrath of, or not upset, Beijing, then I think it will probably never come. Not in 50 years," she says. "We have a contradiction. People say they love democracy. But they don't respect political parties, and feel it undignified to get involved in the place where democracy grows."

A politics of everyman

Eu's popularity is a small irony. That's because the Civic Party idea is to shift from politics based on charismatic individuals and pick up younger citizens, women - blue-collar types as well as professionals. The marchers of Hong Kong are a cross section motivated by concrete problems, not ideology or strong leaders: the health crisis of SARS, the problem of pollution, the effort to impose "security laws" that would strip religious, civil, and press freedom rights.

In the 2003 crisis, Hong Kong turned to the law, and to lawyers - many of them women like Eu - for guidance.

In some ways, the legendary old democratic party in Hong Kong is no longer adequate. The true-blue democrats were forged in the Tiananmen protest period and offered sturdy opposition since Hong Kong's handover.

Led by Martin Lee, a kind of Vaclav Havel of Hong Kong, the democrats are revered. Yet as Mr. Lee himself agrees, democracy must penetrate more deeply into civil society. Democracy is regularly declared dead in Hong Kong only to reemerge in marches of hundreds of thousands. The dilemma for democrats like Lee is how to surmount the constant inertia and the pressure from Beijing to submit to the mainland system.

Prodded by friends into public life

Eu's journey into public life was not by design, but came when a favorite candidate dropped out of a council by-election in 2001. Friends pushed her hard. Until then, Eu lived "a very stable life for a long time," she says at her downtown law office. Two paintings of mountain waterfalls, done by one of her two daughters. sit above her desk. "I wasn't in any way an adventurous kind of person at all.... I am not the person who thinks in grand terms, like Hong Kong needs me," she says.

She is married to a surgeon; her eldest daughter is graduating from Princeton University in New Jersey. Asked how she can handle the demands of starting a party, she says, "Easy - choose the right husband," and waxes lyrical about how a supportive confidant helps care for the family.