New star power for Hong Kong's democracy struggle

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

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.

Eu was born in Hong Kong and went to Catholic school. Her parents were traditional; her mother raised her "with the theory that you must be first in everything and that this is possible if you try hard enough."

She thought of several careers, settled on the law, and was first in her class. Law was a difficult decision for a woman in the early 1970s in Hong Kong.

"It was thought that without connections a woman should not be so audacious," Eu says, "so there were a lot of cold buckets thrown. But I wanted to try."

She thrived, made a name, and has great respect among barristers here. Eu is popular "because her success is open for all to see," says colleague and friend Margaret Ng, also a Hong Kong legislator. "You get to know Audrey, and you realize her success is not built on who she knows, or her father's position. In the legal profession, you go by ability."

A reading list of Churchill, Mandela

Of late, Eu has read Churchill, Mandela, and a raft of books on economic theory. She admires Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident. She remembers a line in Hillary Clinton's autobiography, from Eleanor Roosevelt, that "a woman is like a tea bag ... you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water."

She recently read David Garrow's biography of Martin Luther King Jr. "I like King, I must say," she says. "He was attacked even by his own community, but said that he was taking controversial stands not out of arrogance, but out of conviction."

Eu says she would be happy to visit Beijing along with other democrats. But China hasn't offered an invitation. She says there is a "firmly entrenched" view in Hong Kong, influenced by Beijing, that if Hong Kong were to have direct elections for a chief executive, and universal suffrage, that "all these foreign countries, and particularly America, will control and influence Hong Kong.

"In real terms in Hong Kong this kind of thinking is impossible to comprehend. Yet you get this vibe and feedback all the time," she adds.

A prompt to form a new party

After the huge protest of July 1, 2003, which dramatically changed Hong Kong politics, chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was dismissed. Until late last fall, Eu and her compatriots were content to run something called the "Article 45 concern group," a legal think tank. But new Chief Executive Donald Tsang offered up a constitutional reform bill that seemed more like a step backward than reform to the democrats.

The proposal, now defeated, would have allowed more executive appointments, less choice, and blocked direct elections. Mr. Tsang's idea brought those 300,000 people out on a clear, cool day last December, and was the spur to the formation of the Civic Party.

"This reform was really against the principle of democracy ... it was so obviously a backward step. There was no way to accept it," Eu says. "It meant the fight would have to be carried on for some time."

Speaking for the idea of democracy in China's special autonomous region, Eu notes, "We needed some new blood, some reinforcements."

Audrey Eu on democracy march

"One memory that will never leave me is the July 1 march of 2003. We didn't expect a half-million people at all. We knew it would be big, but didn't expect 500,000. It was an extremely hot day, and everyone was literally withering under the sun. It was quite a strenuous walk. There were many bottlenecks and we were often stuck for a very long time. At one place we were stuck for nearly an hour.

"But people were buying soft drinks, handing them out, and everyone was very happy and in a jovial mood. People were passing around mints, sweets; it was like a family - a huge family outing where we all know each other, and feel like we are all seeing a bosom friend. People weren't known to each other, but they were all connecting.

"Toward the end, near the Bank of China building [in Central Hong Kong], there were trucks with high deck platforms looking over the crowds. Different groups were mounting them. One group recognized me.

" 'Come up and speak to the crowd!' they yelled. So I went up, and it was a fantastic sight. You could see from every corner of your eye, and every bit you could see were heads. You almost felt like it was something biblical, all heads wavering and bobbing, heads moving all over as far as you could see. You speak to the microphone, and everyone responded. It was quite fantastic.

"I remember the first thing I thought up there was a Chinese saying: 'The water can carry the boat, just as it can sink the boat.' And I felt the water could carry the boat. Things were possible.

"The saying can mean, you know, good things. And it can also mean dangerous things. It means you have to be careful as well.

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