Hong Kong reasserts its 'people power'

At least 400,000 residents rallied Thursday in support of more democratic freedoms from the mainland.

Doubts about the ardor of Hong Kong's residents for greater freedoms may have been settled Thursday on a stiflingly hot and muggy day as at least 400,000 people marched quietly from a sports park to central government offices, starting at 2:30 p.m. and continuing well past dark.

The stunning turnout on the first anniversary of Hong Kong's "people power" movement destroyed key assumptions held in official circles that last year's epochal march of 500,000 of was due only to frustration over the handling of the SARS epidemic and a bad economy. Thursday's turnout of grandmothers, young parents, punk-rockers, and stockbrokers was twice the size organizers had predicted. And it took place in spite of - or because of - China's campaign this spring to nullify the calls for voting rights expressed by prodemocracy factions. The march ensures that Hong Kong will continue to be a thorn for Beijing.

Moreover, while Hong Kong people are famously nonconfrontational, many marchers expressed firmly that they want direct elections in 2007, even though Chinese officials ruled against this in April.

Trading company executive Jeff Chan, who also marched last year, says, "I know that's what they say, no vote in 2007. But we are going to keep putting the pressure on. We will take to the streets till we can vote." He points to his 3-year-old daughter, Keiko, in the stroller he's pushing: "I'm here for my child," he says. "If Hong Kong does not become democratic, there is no future for her."

For defenders of the status quo in the former British colony, Thursday represents something of a wake-up call, analysts say. Huge masses marching openly on a blistering day (a holiday, no less), at a time when the economy is improving, and against a leader appointed by Beijing, can't be reassuring to vested interests. Groups from business elites to Beijing officials had hoped for a low turnout and a yawn by a population they have often characterized as focused on commercial success. But with crucial elections coming in September for Hong Kong's miniparliament, the democrats, as they are known, might even control the legislative body here for the first time.

"This day has been pretty incredible," says Michael Davis, a constitutional scholar at Chinese University of Hong Kong and member of the Article 45 Concerned Group, a pro-democracy nongovernmental organization. "It was a mystery to us what the turnout would be. But it seems that China's handling of the democracy issue, ignoring months of Hong Kong people's efforts, had an effect. There were good faith efforts on our part, and what we got in response was ... accusations of being unpatriotic and conspiring with foreign powers. People got tired of that."

It also suggests, civic leaders say, that Hong Kong has a more politically astute culture than it gets credit for. Some Beijing officials continue to assert that residents are not politically mature enough to handle universal suffrage. "Even though people may feel it futile to respond to Beijing about [direct elections in] 2007, they also seem to want to stand firm," says Mr. Davis.

In the week leading up to the rally, democracy leaders put out a confusing set of messages. Some described July 1 as a time of reconciliation or a celebration. Others said it was a solemn protest. Yet in talks with several dozen marchers, most articulated clearly why they were there, and sent a basic message: They wanted chief executive Tung Che-hwa to step down, and they wanted democracy and voting rights in 2007.

"I didn't like Tung last year, and I still don't like him," says 19-year-old Dan Tan, who says that his father doesn't approve of his participation in the rally. "But this year I'm for universal suffrage. We need democracy."

A year ago, the marchers were largely clean-cut, white-collar professionals - a crowd called out by lawyers and ministers. This year's group included more working class - small shop owners, labor unions. The turnout Thursday indicates a broadening of ideas of freedom of expression and voting among the general public, says Rose Wu of Civil Human Rights Front, and a key organizer of the march.

People filed into Victoria Park near Causeway Bay for five hours, many wearing white, the Chinese color of mourning. Many sported umbrellas with the word "suffrage," cooled themselves with fans that read "power to the people," and shouted "Tung Che-hwa, please leave!" They carried signs that read "Democracy Road." Kids ran through the crowd with popsicles, and stewards handed out free water.

So hot was the day that marchers like student Shan Tang showed up on behalf of all his family. "We are four," he said. "We all want direct elections." Nurse Rebecca Lee came with her husband, "because ... Hong Kong deserves a better leader, and we need the power to change him."

One woman held a pink umbrella with five black balloons that she said represented other members of the family not willing to brave the near-100-degree heat and intense humidity.

The route out of the park was so congested that throngs barely crawled for blocks through a four-lane artery. By comparison, a crowd of 50,000 to 80,000 at a Tiananmen Square commemoration last month moved briskly.

The protest took place in an media atmosphere in which pro-democracy messages have been curtailed. Three popular radio hosts left after threats last month. A study released this week by the Hong Kong Journalists Association looked at the city's 14 leading newspapers from Jan. 28 to March 8 - a period corresponding with a "patriotism debate" introduced by Beijing. Of all headlines during that period, 55 percent supported the patriotism litmus test, while only 15 percent back the pro-democracy position.

One marcher said the news restrictions were troubling, and worried about "what they are not telling to us.... If my mind is not getting the truth, what do I know?"

Mainland officials say that while Hong Kong people are free to march, and those that do are not unpatriotic, no decisions have been made about whether march organizers are unpatriotic and thus unfit for office. One Beijing official argued that those seeking office in Hong Kong, "must not only love Hong Kong, they must love China.... They can't just say they love us. Our policy is not to listen to what you say, but to follow closely what you do."

Another official said: "We would prefer these marches don't take place. We think there is a more suitable way to express feelings. But it is [Hong Kong's] freedom. If they want the sun on their heads, they can have it."

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