Democratic push in Hong Kong

10,000 protesters rallied Sunday in support of reforms in the territory.

As protests continued here Sunday - the third gathering since 500,000 people marched July 1 - Hong Kong's citizens, media, and even many executives are looking for leadership in an unusual place: the legal community.

Often it is charismatic or revolutionary figures with flowing beards or prison time that capture mass imagination. But Hong Kong's people-power movement is fired by mild-mannered, well-trimmed figures in preppy shirts and expensive sandals who are calling for direct elections and political accountability.

The protests first emerged from a group of conservative, respected law-school deans and Hong Kong bar association presidents alarmed by a lack of rights and protections in a "national security bill" known as Article 23. The bill was supposed to pass July 9, but the largest public protests since 1989 led to its withdrawal, in a major, if indirect, rebuff of Beijing and its allies here.

"I think it is one of the few times in history that lawyers have been heroes," quips Michael Davis, a Yale-trained scholar and member of Article 23 Concerned Group, seven experts who have done much of the underlying thinking about legal implications of the bill.

Sunday's ebullient gathering of more than 10,000 in downtown Hong Kong was an attempt, organizers say, to turn public feeling away from negative feelings over Article 23, seen as foisted on the city by Beijing-appointed chief executive Tung Che Hwa, and into a "pro-democracy" solidarity push.

Speakers called for "democratic rebuilding." One diplomat commented that residents now seem "less against Tung, and more for democracy."

"The most important issue for us right now, whether [Mr.] Tung stays or goes, is a sense of consultancy," Alan Leong, the former head of the Hong Kong bar and a speaker Sunday, told the Monitor. "The government needs to start consulting with the people about direct elections in 2007 and 2008."

Those are the dates when, according to Hong Kong's basic law, the chief executive and legislature are to be elected directly. Some advocates here fear Article 23 could spurself-censorship or arrests that would indefinitely block elections.

Currently, various pro-democratic politicians are the most popular officials in Hong Kong, and would dominate if direct elections were instituted. But democrats are kept out of power by rules that allow the legislature and the chief executive to be controlled by parties sympathetic to Beijing.

Polling data show support for direct elections has increased to 70 percent from 55 percent. But whether the protests can be sustained is unclear, as are Tung's next moves, which could include a reorganized cabinet.

An open letter to Tung circulated Sunday read: "Article 23 can only be enacted under a truly democratic government. Why don't you push political reform as fervently as you have pushed Article 23?"

The Concerned Group organized last October as inklings of the bill emerged. There was no clear text for the bill that Tung demanded be passed by July 9. But Group members say it allowed for searches and arrest without a warrant, the curbing of free speech and religious expression, and the labeling as "subversive" organizations with ties to groups banned on the mainland.

As the implications became clear, four former heads of the Hong Kong bar, the dean of the Hong Kong University law school, a US constitutional scholar, and two Hong Kong legislators agreed to write a set of replies. Each opinion was printed in a different color, and 200,000 were handed out on the streets.

The "rainbow pamphlets" were so popular that 200,000 more were printed, and by December, 60,000 Hong Kong residents marched in the streets, the largest protest here since 1989.

Given the outcry, the Group and a growing set of civic organizations thought officials might reconsider their drive to get the bill through the legislature. But if anything, during the winter and spring, and in the midst of the SARS crisis, its passage was sped up.

Rather than offer a "white" bill - a working text that allowed consultation - the government issued a final "blue" bill. A blue bill can be discussed in the legislature, but with little likelihood of change. The blue text was the first time anyone had seen the actual wording of Article 23. What's more, despite a two-foot stack of replies, many of which expressed deep reservations, the article appeared to be the same "nasty" bill, as one Group member put it, from the fall.

Government tactics added to frustrations. The official accounting of a government panel to determine who was "for" and "against" Article 23, for instance, labeled the Concerned Group as "undecided." "This was just stupid, and hurt the government in the eyes of the people," says Mr. Davis. "We were opposed to every paragraph of Article 23."

In late June, the Group organized an international legal conference in Hong Kong that brought in experts from around the world to discuss Article 23. On that same day, with the pro-democracy members gone, the Hong Kong legislature "read" the bill, and approved it - setting up a final vote for July 9.

"Even some uncontroversial trade bills can take two years to read in Hong Kong," says a diplomat here. "But the chief executive was committed to passing the bill by July 9. I think they now see that as a mistake."

"Something that remains in Hong Kong after the Brits is a deep regard for the rule of law," says James To of the Democratic Party. "People may not understand Article 23. But they look at the chief executive and his cronies, they look at the corruption in government - and then they look at the street where these respected lawyers are marching in the heat, and they trust the lawyers, not the unelected leaders. That's what's changed in the past few days."

The protests were not just about Article 23. They resulted from a variety of scandals, economic troubles, the SARS crisis, and a perception that Tung and the government are out of touch. In the past weeks, a number of moderate pro-Beijing legislators have started to give speeches on accountability and democracy, spurred by their constituencies. And Tung withdrew controversial elements of Article 23, though Group members say the changes are superficial.

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