HONG KONG & MACAU: Protest waves test Beijing's promises


Still reeling under the weight of the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis and angered by government lies, spending attacks and scandals, thousands of people from a range of social groups took to Hong Kong's streets on consecutive weekends in late June-early July to protest for change.

"Down with Tung" banners reflected the increasingly popular demand to sack the territory's Beijing-appointed chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. The pressure on Tung increased on June 28 when the legislature passed a no-confidence motion against two senior government officials, an unprecedented development in Hong Kong.

The two officials were censured for failing to prevent or deal properly with a series of scandals in public housing construction projects. Although only one-third of Hong Kong's legislature was elected, the motion won by 39 to nine, with six abstentions.

Tung's unelected administrators and other appointees of Beijing-controlled bodies mounted a counter-attack. Maria Tam Wai-chu, deputy of the National People's Congress (China's parliament) and a member of the Basic Law Committee (which oversees Hong Kong's post-1997 de facto constitution), slammed the protesters: "If we have more patriotic citizens, we will see less of these abnormal and unreasonable incidents. I'm worried that if people behave like this, they will scuttle Hong Kong." She also claimed that the Basic Law does not empower the legislators to pass no-confidence motions.

The chief secretary for administration, Anson Chan Fong On-sang, said she was "saddened and troubled" that two "loyal civil servants" were put on public trial. She accused those trying to hold the officials responsible for the scandals of "politicising the civil service". Secretary for housing Dominic Wong Shing-wah went further, accusing the legislators of having difficulty distinguishing right from wrong.

Although public protests are no longer rare in Hong Kong, the mobilisation of such a broad variety of groups was unprecedented. On June 25, while 1200 doctors were protesting on one side of Victoria Harbour against a restructuring of the medical profession which will increase their already excessive workloads, 1300 social workers from 30 organisations rallied on the other side of the harbour against government spending cuts which will jeopardise their service.

Elsewhere in Hong Kong, 2000 homeowners expressed their anger about the value of their homes halving in less than three years; 500 people protested to mark the first anniversary of Beijing's trampling on the right of Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal to interpret a provision of the Basic Law (in relation to the right to settle in Hong Kong for children from mainland China with at least one Hong Kong parent); and 100 people affected by forced relocation protested against unfair compensation procedures.

Then, on July 1, the official morning ceremony to mark the anniversary of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China was greeted by a noisy protest, followed a few hours later by a march of 3000 people from 32 groups. Tung's effigy was burned, his resignation became a central demand and the flag of the Hong Kong SAR was burned.

The plight of the working poor and unemployed was also highlighted in a protest outside the central government offices. Wage reductions and job insecurity are very widespread in Hong Kong.

Tung's revelation in late June that in 1998 he secretly dropped a 1997 pledge to provide 85,000 new homes a year also sparked public outcry.

While Beijing's response to the latest moves in Hong Kong remains unclear, its overt attempts to pressure the Hong Kong media into blacking out advocates of independence for Taiwan have been a worrying sign.

The Chinese government's semi-official representatives in Hong Kong have threatened to speed up the addition of a new article (No. 23) to the Basic Law to regulate "subversive" activities. It has made it quite clear that freedom of speech in its territory doesn't apply to matters relating to "national unity", strongly suggesting that any advocacy or even reporting of Taiwanese independence will be considered subversive.

Meanwhile, about 250 unemployed people protested in Macau on July 2, their fourth protest in two months against imported labour. About 30,000 workers have been brought to Macau from mainland China, the Philippines and Thailand and their generally lower pay has heightened the competition for dwindling jobs.

Vigorous scuffles broke out after the protesters refused to follow the prescribed marching route. This began a three-hour standoff during which the police fired eight rounds of tear gas.