Wednesday, June 30, 2004

HONG KONG — Seven years after Hong Kong returned to the “warm embrace of the motherland” of mainland China, politics have grown volatile — and discontent might spill over again in a march today to demand democracy.

Ordinary citizens cannot vote for Hong Kong’s leader, but they have found they can make their point by protesting, and all sides are watching for a huge turnout at the demonstration.

The Beijing and Hong Kong governments have made conciliatory gestures in recent days. But critics questioned whether that was only a ploy to ease tempers ahead of the march — and ahead of September legislative elections that many think will spell trouble for the Beijing camp.

The democracy rally this week is being held on the anniversary of a march by 500,000 people last year that stunned Hong Kong’s unpopular leader, Tung Chee-hwa, and forced him to back down from plans for an anti-subversion law that many viewed as an assault on civil liberties.

Hong Kong and Chinese leaders are watching to see how many of the territory’s 6.8 million people turn out today. The rally undoubtedly will overshadow official flag raisings and other events tomorrow to mark the seventh anniversary of the territory’s return from British rule.

Perhaps a bigger worry for the Beijing regime is the September election, when ordinary Hong Kong voters will directly elect 30 of 60 lawmakers. The rest are chosen by special-interest groups that tend to side with Beijing backers, but the government, for the first time, might be confronted with a Legislative Council that will not back Mr. Tung.

“The Hong Kong people are split,” political scientist Ma Ngok said. “Some are advocating for democracy, but about 30 percent of the people say: ‘Don’t confront China. We are weak.’ They are not trying to overthrow the central government; they only want to change the Hong Kong government.”

The British Union Jack was replaced by the red Chinese banner on July 1, 1997, opening a new era for the capitalist enclave that promised to include Western-style civil liberties and a great deal of local autonomy.

But China’s central government angered many in Hong Kong by ruling this spring that ordinary citizens will not be allowed to vote for Mr. Tung’s successor in 2007 or elect all lawmakers in 2008, crushing hope for a shift to full democracy.

The territory’s miniconstitution, the Basic Law, sets full democracy as an eventual goal, but many think the Beijing regime intends endless delays. Critics say China’s leaders pushed into the local debate to show their muscle.

“In the first five years under Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong people believed China had no direct intervention in Hong Kong, but now we see more evidence of that,” said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Analysts predict as many as 300,000 people could turn out today to demand a greater say in their affairs.

Since laying down the law on elections, the government has made some conciliatory gestures in the hope of soothing public anger.

Beijing allowed Hong Kong to borrow one of Buddha’s fingers — seen as sacred by many people here — for a temporary display that attracted thousands. Mr. Tung recently met with democracy activists, and a top mainland official offered some conciliatory remarks this past week.

But pro-democracy lawmakers and human rights activists remain wary about whether China’s leaders sincerely want to address Hong Kong’s concerns.

“Beijing could be very repressive, or they could make peace,” said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.

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