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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 July, 2003, 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK
Analysis: China's concern at HK protests
By Virginia Gidley-Kitchin
BBC News

Protests against Article 23
China has not seen protests on this scale since Tiananmen Square
Thousands of people in Hong Kong have demonstrated again, calling for the government to scrap a controversial security bill.

They say it would erode the territory's political freedom and curb free speech.

Last week, 500,000 people marched through Hong Kong in the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the territory was handed back to China in 1997.

It is Hong Kong's second mass protest in just over a week.

And what began as opposition to a tough new bill that would outlaw subversion, sedition, treason and other crimes against the state is fast turning into a full-blown political crisis.

Banners calling for the resignation of the Chief Executive, Tung Chee-Hwa, have been accompanied by others demanding nothing less than democracy for Hong Kong.

Speaking shortly before Wednesday's protest began, Mr Tung admitted that his administration faced huge challenges, but expressed confidence that it could cope.

"We will learn from experience. We will respond to the aspirations of our citizens and we will take actions to allay public dissatisfaction and improve the effectiveness of the government," Mr Tung said.

"Our goal is clear: it is to win back the support and the trust of the people."

Unprecedented climb down

The rally marks the day that Mr Tung had planned to put the anti-subversion bill to a vote in the Hong Kong legislature.

But on Monday - after the desertion of a key ally jeopardised the bill's passage - Mr Tung announced that the vote would now be put off.

It was a stunning climb down for a man who has rarely appeared to need to take public opinion into account.

Enacting [Article 23] is the constitutional responsibility of all of us
Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's Chief Executive
But it did not go far enough for Richard Tsoi, spokesman for the Civil Human Rights Front, the group behind the protests, who wants the government to give up the bill completely, despite the fact that Hong Kong is obliged under the terms of its handover to China to pass national security legislation.

"The Hong Kong Government is just deferring Article 23 (the security bill). But it has not abandoned the bill entirely," he said.

"Basically, it is still under the legislative process. So, I think it is still a threat to the liberty and rights of the Hong Kong people".

Last week, opposition to the bill resulted in a demonstration by half a million people, a huge figure given that Hong Kong's entire population is only seven million.

It marked the largest political protest since the territory's return to China in 1997.

Peter Wong, a Hong Kong businessman who is also a deputy of the National People's Congress in Beijing, says he thinks that the security bill served as the lightning rod for what were essentially economic grievances.

"The people on the street the other day were responding to the accumulated dissatisfactions with the economic environment. Because, with growing unemployment, and the fact that a lot of people have their assets depreciated to a negative value, this anti-subversion law is just a mechanism to get the crowd out".

Many grievances

Anger over Hong Kong's ailing economy and perceptions that the government mishandled the Sars crisis may well have contributed to the size of last week's protest.

But it was staged on the sixth anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule, and others see the protest as reflecting dissatisfaction with the Mr Tung's leadership and even the political system overall.

Christine Loh, a former member of the Legislative Council who now runs an independent think-tank called Civic Exchange, says there are real questions now about whether Tung Chee-Hwa should resign.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa
Is time running out for Tung Chee-hwa?

"There's a lot of talk now about a possible cabinet reshuffle, and moreover whether the Chief Executive himself needs to step down," she said.

"This really throws everything into uncertainty because neither China nor Hong Kong has ever been at this place before. I mean, nobody ever anticipated that a Chief Executive may not serve out his full term and everybody is now quickly examining our constitution - called the Basic Law - to see how that might need to play out".

Under the terms of its handover to Chinese rule, Hong Kong was supposed to be able to preserve its political freedoms for 50 years.

But critics of the government say these have already been eroded, and the security bill would have been particularly damaging.

Unexpected protest

Mr Tung was widely believed to have been acting under pressure from Beijing to introduce it.

So what has Beijing had to say about this?

For surely, if one thing worries China's leaders more than having a lot of people out on the streets protesting, it's letting them believe that's the way to get their leaders to change their minds?

Christine Loh says Beijing was completely thrown that this could happen.

Has Mr Tung lost so much credibility he's unable to govern and needs replacing?
Christine Loh, Civic Exchange
"Hong Kong now has a very different political landscape. Beijing is wise not to have said anything definitive so far," she said.

"Obviously it must be considering all possible options. Whether Mr Tung is going to stay? And if he's going to stay, can he really tough it out? Can you just live with a cabinet reshuffle? Or has Mr Tung lost so much credibility that he's really unable to govern and therefore you really need to replace him? But nobody's been at this point before".

Allan Lee, a member of China's parliament (the National People's Congress), is also host of a popular radio show in Hong Kong.

He agrees that Beijing is deeply concerned about the situation in the territory.

"Beijing is very worried about three aspects," he says.

Protests against Article 23
Beijing is alarmed by opposition to its control of Hong Kong
"First, about Mr Tung himself. He underestimated the number of people who would be marching on the streets against the government and National Security Bill.

"Secondly, what is going to happen in four years' time, whether Hong Kong is moving towards a full democracy or not. The Hong Kong people certainly are calling for that: free election of the Chief Executive in 2007.

"And thirdly, Beijing is very worried about Taiwan. This one-country-two-systems (whereby Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule but retained its political freedoms) is setting an example for the recovery of the sovereignty of Taiwan (which Beijing regards as a renegade province). And this has set it back manyfold".

Beijing's problem is that permitting greater democracy in Hong Kong might help to woo Taiwan, but might fuel demands for similar privileges in mainland China.

These are exciting times for a territory which has traditionally put money-making before politics.

But Beijing may feel it cannot afford to be seen to make concessions to people power.

Fresh HK protests at security bill
09 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
HK delays anti-subversion bill
07 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
HK leader under fire over bill
07 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Tung Chee-hwa: Beijing's favoured son
07 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Q&A: HK's anti-subversion law
01 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
HK unveils anti-subversion law plan
24 Sep 02  |  Asia-Pacific

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