An annual speech by Hong Kong's chief is rarely cause for note. But after another surprisingly sizable and diverse "people power" march here - some 100,000 residents on Jan. 1 called for greater political rights - the embattled Tung Che-hwa will be in the hot seat Wednesday when he gives his New Year policy address.
The peaceful Jan. 1 march, festooned with anti-Tung banners and winding through the city all afternoon on a day better known for lounging on the couch, is yet another indication that the democracy drama in Hong Kong that began last July is still quite alive.
That puts Mr. Tung in the prickly role of trying to please Chinese leaders, worried about the stirrings in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, without creating deeper unhappiness among the large mainstream white-collar cohort that has taken to the streets of this city.
Both the size and rhetoric of the New Year crowd suggest marchers meant to "send a message," as a small trading firm owner put it, for Tung to begin outlining steps toward constitutional reform in China's special autonomous region, including direct elections for the chief executive by 2007, and for the legislature by 2008. In reform circles in Hong Kong, leaders are actively preparing for a series of moves, in line with the Basic Law that governs the city, that they say can only end with a decision by the Standing Committee in Beijing for what protesters chanted repeatedly: "universal suffrage."
"The chief executive appointed by Beijing is not governing Hong Kong very well," said a smiling engineer with a cloth knapsack and a touch of grey in his hair. "We want our city under the control of someone we choose. We can't replace Tung, and we are not happy about that. We want something more like California. If you don't like the leader, you can replace him."
Whether Tung will answer in sympathy with the growing numbers on the street is unclear. The chief executive has made no comment about the Jan. 1 march. Tung is China's chosen leader. Beijing is reportedly concerned about high-profile restlessness in Hong Kong just as nearby Taiwan is preparing a controversial referendum that smacks of independence - something vociferously opposed in Beijing - to be held along with Taiwan's national elections in March.
In December, after a huge defeat of Tung allies in routine district council elections here, Tung paid a visit to Beijing. He emerged stony faced from meetings. Shortly thereafter, via China's official media, Xinhua, and through four legal opinions by mainland experts, it appeared that China was taking a tough line, denying the need for changes in Hong Kong's political process.
Two weeks ago, Tung, without the consultation desired by democrats, selected 102 new political appointees. Most are sympathetic to his administration. The act was seen as a direct rebuff to the democracy movement, and to the message sent by voters in November. It is one reason the New Year's march was so large, according to University of Hong Kong pollsters.
The protest, signaled by radio talk shows and by e-mail networks sent by disparate civic groups, was significant in several ways, analysts say.
Its makeup was more diverse - in both class and motive - than the July protests. The July 1 march of 500,000 (followed by two rallies of 25,000) focused on a draconian national security bill, later tabled. The Jan. 1 rally was not covered in the official Chinese press.
The New Year march included student unions, trade unions, blue-collar service workers, monks, people waving Taiwanese national flags, as well as the white-collar families holding hands that characterized the July 1 event.
The Jan. 1 event invoked a need for broad structural changes, including a process leading to direct elections that would clear three hurdles: a two-thirds approval in the legislature, the approval of the chief executive, and approval by the Standing Committee in Beijing. The first test will come in elections next September.
Moreover, in more than a dozen random interviews with marchers, it was clear that commonly held assumptions about the movement are untrue. In July it was assumed that Hong Kong people were unhappy due to the SARS epidemic and long standing economic woes. Hong Kong is widely characterized as an "apolitical" city, with some analysts arguing that once the cash registers start ringing again, things will return to business as usual.
Yet the march took place during a week of front-page headlines reporting improved trade and predicting a better economic year. Some 90 percent of participants desired "direct elections," according to a University of Hong Kong poll.
"One reason I'm here is to show we are still concerned about the future of Hong Kong, even though the economy is improving," says Henry Chen, a young business man interviewed in the fading light with his wife, who silently nodded agreement. "People say we are only interested in money. That isn't true."
The event started in Victoria Park by the harbor and ended at the central government offices. People came four to 12 abreast in a steady flow for several hours; tied red, blue, and yellow ribbons to an iron fence (the symbol of a vote); then walked back to their homes.
"This was a day of empowerment, jubilation, hope ... as well as discontent," says Margaret Ng, an attorney, legislator, and leading democrat. "If the government now fails to bring a consultation document, or makes silly remarks that turnout was low, that will only provoke people. Hong Kong people are very mild. We have to be pushed very hard to take to the streets. So there isn't a question what our desires are.
"Beijing has not said Hong Kong is not ready for democracy," she says. "It said it wanted 10 years of stability after the hand over. But we now feel there is too much delay, and so there is frustration."