A year ago Thursday, Hong Kong was the mouse that roared. The former British colony astounded everyone, including itself, as 500,000 marched through the city in a peaceful protest for democratic rights. Nothing that politically daring had ever happened here before.
Yet Thursday, as the so-called July 1 "people power" movement of Hong Kong takes to the streets in a much anticipated first anniversary, the mouse is less confident. While last year's protest was against city chief executive Tung Che-hwa, things have now changed. The mouse is now dealing with an elephant called China, and it is an elephant that knows how to dance.
Since January, Beijing has steadily increased pressure on Hong Kong. It introduced new "patriotic criteria" for future Hong Kong leaders. It ruled out direct elections for Hong Kong's leaders in 2007, a blow that undercuts the idea of the city's special "autonomy," critics say. Beijing has even requested that marchers in Thursday's rally not shout last July's emblematic slogan: "power to the people," or "return power to the people."
What's more, some democracy leaders who have recently entered into talks with mid-level Beijing officials are now describing a "thaw" with the mainland. At the same time, organizers on the eve of the march are suddenly divided over what Thursday's rally means. Some call it a "celebration." Others insist it is a protest. Even Martin Lee, the patriarch of democracy here, has suggested that marchers act mildly and not shout "power to the people."
Many residents are confused. "My husband is going to march, but I'm not going," says an international lawyer with a US firm. "I'm not sure anyone knows what this protest is about. Is it celebration? Is it a protest? What is it?"
Some analysts say that Beijing is employing "united front" tactics, dividing the Hong Kong movement - in hopes that the turnout Thursday is low.
"Part of the audience for this rally is other people in mainland China," says Perry Link of Princeton University. "If 300,000 actually make it onto the streets in Hong Kong, that's very important as a symbol. People in China will know."
Under the common understanding of the handover, Beijing authorities were to stay away from any intervention in Hong Kong affairs. Some experts here say the government of Mr. Tung, however, handled things so badly that Beijing has had to get involved.
"The Chinese government has a desire so strong that no one can imagine it, that Hong Kong become the best place on earth," says a Hong Kong and Macao affairs officer in Beijing. "Even though we feel this kindness, Hong Kong people don't understand us, which is why we meet with so many of them now."
More largely, the march is seen here as Round 1 in a crucial election this September.
For the first time, that election could give pro-democracy parties an edge in the 60-seat legislature. In recent weeks, sources say, private polls conducted by prodemocracy parties say that Hong Kong residents are worried the democrats are acting "too aggressively" toward mainland China. In an ironic twist, three radio talk-show hosts, who promoted last year's huge march, all quit their jobs in late May; two cited daily death threats as the reason for leaving.
Bishop Joseph Zen is the best-known religious leader in Hong Kong, and plays a central role in the democracy-rights movement. Beijing authorities recently let Bishop Zen visit his native Shanghai after years of refusing him access to the mainland. Still, he says he insists on speaking his mind about Thursday's protest rally, as he did in an exclusive interview with the Monitor.
What is most important to convey to the world about the July 1 march?
Right now, people from Beijing are using all means to influence the Hong Kong people. They are saying, "Why go on the street, it isn't necessary." They say this should be a day for celebration. They say we are ready to talk, so there is no need to go out. They say the march may ... give a bad impression to the international community.
In Hong Kong, we have a strong core group ... but some of us now say you should protest with a smile. Some say it should be both a celebration and a protest. Some even say people should not come out, like the head of the Buddhists. He says there should be harmony in the community, peace, etc.
I seem to be the most hard-line, because I insist the faithful be encouraged to come out. I insist this is a protest, not a celebration, and ... we should be free to use whatever slogans are lawful.
Why is July 1 important?
We need a collective way to express our feelings, and we surely have reason to express them. Most immediate is universal suffrage. [In April] Beijing said no to suffrage in 2007 and 2008 - even before we could discuss it! I'm not sure whether direct voting is now lost for 2007 and 2008. But I am strongly convinced we should be allowed to discuss it.
There is talk of a thaw between Beijing and Hong Kong democrats.
I'm not sure we should take this risk. At this moment we can only trust facts, not words. So far, there are no facts. I think we are always in favor of a better atmosphere.... But better atmosphere does not justify renouncing our right to have a community declaration of what we feel.
It is not the right moment for negotiations with Beijing because it creates confusion and makes divisions among ourselves.
Does this rally relate to last July?
This year's march is a continuation of last year's. Last year, we succeeded in rousing a community feeling that we should defend our rights. Before that, the government push to pass [antisubversion legislation, called Article 23] was so arrogant and insensitive. People realized the law was a danger for everyone. It limited expression, the press, freedom of association. In fact, it was possible to assume that every single person would be directly affected.
The Hong Kong government recognized there was something wrong, and came out with a humble statement. But that was not enough. We reflected on the roots of the problem of bad governance. We found the root cause was a lack of democracy. So democracy is a natural consequence of last year's rally.
What about the debate over patriotism?
The central government must have been misled. They believed that Hong Kong people were unpatriotic because they [opposed] a state security law. So they ask if what we want is subversion. No. All we wanted was a good and balanced law, not a bad and unfair law. So if we are favoring subversion, you can see why Beijing wants to thwart democracy. [So] there is some misunderstanding.
You won't march. Why?
My taking part may cause a disturbance. Those who are against us may have a very large object to aim at. People may throw a potato or eggs. The Hong Kong government might have a problem. They might not mind if somebody attacked a democracy-party member. But if a religious leader was attacked they might feel more responsible. So if they see me marching, they might send police to protect me, and that would cause a disturbance.