Thursday, October 21, 2004

HONG KONG — When voters elected Leung Kwok-hung, also known as “Long Hair,” they knew they were picking a rabble-rouser, and he hasn’t let them down.

The new lawmaker observed China’s National Day by hitting the streets with a mock coffin symbolizing student activists killed in China, scuffled with police, then proceeded to shout slogans inside a reception hall full of Communist Party dignitaries.

Five days later, he turned up at the legislature to be sworn in — wearing a T-shirt, shaking his fist and bellowing “Long live democracy. Long live the people” as startled fellow lawmakers in business suits looked on.

If China’s leaders were hoping for predictable, orderly politics in Hong Kong after they got it back from Britain in 1997, Mr. Leung, 48, is determined to disappoint them. After years of protesting outside the halls of power, he is now raising a ruckus inside.

Long viewed as a noisy oddball who could barely muster a dozen supporters at his demonstrations, Mr. Leung is suddenly a celebrity with Hong Kong reporters assigned to cover his every move.

The reason is his stunning election victory last month, and what it has revealed about Hong Kong people’s frustration with China and Tung Chee-hwa, the man Beijing chose to lead the territory after Britain returned it to China in 1997.

Hong Kong people blame Mr. Tung for a generally lackluster economy, and are alarmed at recent Chinese moves they see as dampening their democratic freedoms instead of expanding them.

In fact, last month’s election did represent more democracy, because half the 60 seats were directly elected, up from 24 in 2000. And no action has been taken against Mr. Leung, even though his behavior would be unimaginable in mainland China.

But many voters feel China broke its promise to grant Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” when it ruled in April that residents of the island cannot directly elect their leader and the entire legislature in the next three to four years.

Waving signs, burning flags and yelling into a bullhorn, Mr. Leung is a fixture on the street-politics scene, easily identifiable by his shoulder-length hair and Che Guevara T-shirt. Born to a servant of a colonial British household, he was sent as a child to live with relatives and says the experience set him on a lifetime of raising a ruckus for social equality.

When newly elect Mr. Leung paid a courtesy call on Mr. Tung, he refused to shake the chief executive’s hand and demanded that he resign.

Mr. Leung the officeholder seems unlikely to make much difference on matters like taxation, spending and public policy. But he has already made his mark as far as style and decibel level are concerned.

“He’s actually very calculated in challenging the rules, challenging the existing order, but not jeopardizing his own seat,” said Ma Ngok, a university political scientist. “He just wants to show the rules are ridiculous. He wants to make a mockery of the system.”

For instance, Mr. Leung wanted to make up his own oath of office, but was warned that he had to recite the official one in order to take his seat, so he complied but bracketed the oath with slogans.

For his inauguration he forsook Che Guevara for a black T-shirt festooned with slogans. The council president, Rita Fan, told him it was inappropriate, but he said his clothes were nobody else’s business.

No one moved to oust him, though a fight over the dress code appears to be looming.

Mr. Leung has shown no hesitation about pushing China’s hottest buttons. His protests always dwell on the deadly crushing of the pro-democracy movement at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Even Hong Kong’s celebration of Oct. 1, the anniversary of Mao Zedong’s seizure of power, is not sacred to him.

He showed up at the official reception mobbed by journalists, waving his invitation as a legislator, and let fly with pro-democracy slogans.

Beijing has made no official comment on Mr. Leung’s election, but the Wen Wei Po newspaper, which reflects Beijing’s views, has characterized him as “a wild bull charging into a porcelain shop” and said he must learn to behave.

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