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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 June 2007, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Hong Kong's new activists march on
By Samanthi Dissanayake
BBC News, Hong Kong

When Ho Loy is not teaching dance, she is likely to be found leading a protest.
Protest banners
Protest banners are a common sight in Hong Kong

Within the past year, she has chained herself to a railing, directed angry sit-ins and sat through all-night candlelit vigils.

She is part of a new generation of protesters and marchers appearing in Hong Kong.

While people living here do not have much of a vote, they have certainly found a voice and are challenging the government at every opportunity.

This was not always the case.

"Hong Kong people had a burden from Chinese culture. We found it very difficult to express ourselves," said Ho.

"But I feel a change now. People are more confident about speaking out and we are more willing to fight for our place."

The figures bear her out. From 1997, Hong Kong has held more than 1,000 public processions and meetings each year, according to the police.

And the protests get very passionate. Ho Loy was recently convicted of criminal damage for slashing a piece of canvas at the demolition site of Hong Kong's historic Star Ferry pier, which she was fighting to save.

'No democracy'

On one street in Hong Kong's atmospheric Wanchai market, angry banners decorate outdoor stalls selling dried bean curd, jade trinkets and children's toys.

This week, BBC News is taking an in-depth look at the territory, ten years after it was handed over from British to Chinese rule. Stories include: democracy, relations with Beijing and what happened to the British.

"The government wants to remove this street and we are going to fight it," stallholder Mabel Liu said.

The vendors on Tai Yuen street have launched a petition and are selling their plight along with their wares to anybody who will listen.

Some link their small-scale protests to Hong Kong's democratic development.

"There is no democracy here. This petition has been signed by many people. It's a vote. [People] want their voice to be heard," said bag vendor Ng Chi Fun.

Hong Kong's chief executive is selected by a 796-member, Beijing-backed panel.

Only half the seats of its legislature are elected by universal suffrage.

Unpopular law

The Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, stipulates that both the chief executive and the legislative council should eventually be elected by universal suffrage.

But the pace of democratisation is a controversial subject in Hong Kong.

In 2004, the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress ruled that Hong Kong was not ready for universal suffrage for the March 2007 chief executive election, in which Donald Tsang easily won a second term.

The decision angered many in Hong Kong.

Richard Tsoi
Richard Tsoi said the protest he organised was hard to forget

Some say the congress's decision was in reaction to the events of one day in July 2003, when hundreds of thousands of people poured on to the streets to protest against an unpopular anti-subversion law, eventually forcing the government to shelve the legislation.

Richard Tsoi had organised the protest, and even he was surprised at the strength of feeling on the day.

"It was a very united atmosphere. During the protest people shared their anger. That sort of feeling is hard to forget," he said.

It was a remarkable victory for Hong Kong's marchers and it shocked Beijing.

China's reluctance

In the aftermath of the protests, a stream of government officials came from China to interview people about democracy and Hong Kong's political culture.

"China is extremely worried about losing control and unleashing disorder in the territory," said Steve Tsang, a political scientist at the University of Oxford.

Wu Sau Ling
Wu Sau Ling's business concerns her more than democracy

Tsang Yok Sin, a founder of the pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, supported the anti-subversion law at the time of the 2003 protest.

He became in his own words "public enemy number two" after the chief executive at the time, Tung Chee-hwa.

He says the row exposed the gulf between the Hong Kong and mainland politics, and concedes that if there was universal suffrage now, "we would not be the majority party. The pro-Beijing camp would lose".

Indeed, the debate over Hong Kong's future concerns not if but when the territory gets universal suffrage.

The Chinese authorities have said that Hong Kong's progress towards democracy should be "gradual and orderly". They have indicated that they would support universal suffrage - as long as the candidates are acceptable to Beijing.

Surveys by the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme consistently show that 60-70% of the public support universal suffrage as early as possible.

But if you dig deeper and ask how people how far they are willing to go for universal suffrage, their answers become a lot more complex.

Economic woes

Around the corner from the Tai Yuen Street stallholders, Wanchai's wet market begins and the stallholders compete with one another to sell vegetables, meat and fish at rock-bottom prices.

"When rents are high and income is low, what time do I have to dedicate to thinking or doing anything about the voting system?" said vegetable vendor Wu Sau Ling.

Hong Kong has made much more progress in the last 10 years
Shahid Shahid, Chicago

The preservation of personal freedoms and civil liberties combined with the economic difficulties of the last 10 years have influenced people's attitudes to constitutional reform.

The issue seems remote and unimportant to some.

"Hong Kong culture is pragmatic. People want good governance, and a big priority is the gap between the haves and the have-nots," said Chi Kong Cheung, chief executive of the One Country Two Systems Institute think tank.

Protests around certain concrete issues do thrive. Pollster Robert Chung says they act as a way of testing the limits of Hong Kong's freedom.

At the same time, it is true that the numbers of people who turn out to march for democracy are dwindling. Coming out to demonstrate takes time and effort.

But, said Dr Chung, "as with July 2003, it is always the trump card in people's pockets".

Ultimately, the people of Hong Kong understand the power of voting with their feet.

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