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Page last updated at 21:20 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 22:20 UK

Disquiet at Hong Kong status quo

Ahead of Hong Kong's annual pro-democracy march, the BBC's Vaudine England investigates a growing sense of discontent at the way things are run in the territory.

Students of the University of Hong Kong attend a pro-democracy rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre which took place during the Tiananmen Square protests
Hong Kong is the only part of China allowed to hold political protests

"My friends and I think Hong Kong is going down the drain and we want to do something about it - there is decay all around us!" said political commentator Lau Nai-keung.

His comment might usually be expected from an anti-government figure, advocating more democracy.

But Mr Lau hails from the loyalist camp, the constituency in Hong Kong that believes only greater acceptance of Chinese rule over this former British colony can put the territory on the right path.

It suggests dissatisfaction in Hong Kong is spreading.

"We have to confront the political reality of Hong Kong," he urged.

"Hong Kong is under Chinese communist leadership and we must all make a commitment to this future," he said.

His complaints range from a press which he thinks has become too free to an alleged deterioration in public services.

"Things are crumbling apart," he said.

Over in the democratic camp, frustration is also high - but for different reasons.

Hong Kong harbour with containers, Mar 09
Some feel the problem lies in the deal made at Hong Kong's handover

The government has delayed planned consultations on the shape of democracy to come, claiming the economic crisis deserved more attention.

Democrats such as veteran Martin Lee have drawn comparisons with the frog which if thrown into boiling water will jump back out again, but if put in tepid water which is gradually heated will be cooked without ever realising its fate.

Freedom under threat?

As with the frog, Hong Kong's freedoms will evaporate in a cloud of steam, democrats warn.

"I think Hong Kong's freedoms are under threat all the time," said Margaret Ng, a pro-democracy legislator who represents Hong Kong's legal sector.

We can make noise - we still have that freedom - but we can't do anything else
Margaret Ng, legislator

She says constant vigilance is needed in an environment where government control of the media and public life is growing through patronage, financing and the rewarding of pro-Beijing behaviour.

One example she cites is the government's refusal to prosecute Mrs Grace Mugabe, and her bodyguards, for their reported beating of photographers in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's lack of checks and balances on power produces a sense of a lack of fairness, Ms Ng argues - and of helplessness.

"We can make noise - we still have that freedom - but we can't do anything else," she said.

She also noted the Legislative Council, of which she is a member, is structured so that anti-government voices are in the minority and cannot change government policy.

Diversity

That is why the now-established tradition of anti-government demonstrations on 1 July, the day meant to celebrate Hong Kong's change from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, has become a diverse mix of many protests.

Map

"It's a people's march," said Ms Ng, explaining that it shows Hong Kong's people have many concerns about their home.

The test for the democratic movement is the extent to which it attracts a younger generation, she added.

Hong Kong's recent candlelight vigil to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre attracted far greater numbers of young people than previous vigils.

Many were prompted by the earlier comments of Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, in which he attempted to airbrush away the killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Beijing demonstrators involved in the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

What galled most was his claim to speak for the people of Hong Kong. It prompted a new T-shirt design bearing the slogan: "Donald Tsang, you don't represent me".

He was appointed to his job by Beijing after a crafted selection process by a hand-picked elite; the right to vote for their leader is a key demand from Hong Kong's democrats.

Structural disconnect

To Professor Ma Ngok, a specialist on politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the problem for Hong Kong lies much deeper, in the institutions left behind by colonialism and retained by Chinese communism.

The basic slogan of "one country, two systems" was meant to provide a formula for how a huge communist state could incorporate a small, free, capitalist centre which is based on its own legal framework and civil liberties.

I think [the leaders in Beijing] have begun to sense that the current system is not able to handle things
Professor Ma Ngok

But what Chinese rule does in practice, Prof Ma argues, is tell Hong Kong people two contradictory things: they are smart enough to have freedoms such as an independent judiciary and freedom of expression - things unattainable on the mainland - but too stupid to vote.

A related problem, he says, is that when China was negotiating its takeover of Hong Kong with Britain, it thought safety lay in preserving key aspects of the colonial system, such as the appointment of an administrative leader without meaningful consultation, and ruling through co-opted business and government elites.

But Hong Kong has changed immensely in the past two decades, as a much more articulate, educated, youthful and confident Hong Kong population developed a sense of identity and rights.

"I think they have begun to sense that the current system is not able to handle things," said Prof Ma, of the Beijing leadership.

"But I'm not sure that they see it as an institutional problem," he added.

The first chief executive, Tung Che-hwa, was replaced after huge public protest, so earlier problems could handily be blamed on the individual.

"But after that, with four years of Donald Tsang, it's not really working out the way they want," Prof Ma said.

"Beijing probably is frustrated with the current situation... but if they refuse to see the problem as institutional then I think the problems will repeat," he said.

Democrats argue that the only answer - granting the right to vote - remains something Beijing can handle even less than it likes the appearance of public discord on days such as 1 July.



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