As many as 500,000 demonstrators marched through the streets of Hong Kong Tuesday in what the Hong Kong Standard described as “an outpouring of frustration and anger on a scale not seen since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.” The crowd, which was at least five times larger than organizers had expected, gathered on the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China to protest an anti-subversion law that is due to be enacted next week.
As the London Times explained, the legislation, known as Article 23 of the Basic Law, will give the Hong Kong government “the authority to outlaw local groups with ties to any organisation banned by the authorities on the [Chinese] mainland. It will also give police the power to conduct searches without a warrant and impose a ban on disclosing state secrets.” The Sydney Morning Herald added: “The meditation movement Falun Gong and Chinese pro-democracy advocates see Hong Kong’s days as a safe and free platform for expression coming to an end. Lawyers, journalists, corporate analysts, academics and filmmakers are also worried by the law’s prohibition of disclosure of Chinese ‘state secrets.’ ” The South China Morning Post concluded, “[W]hat drove Hong Kong people to come out yesterday was the lurking fear that the legislation could be merely the first shaving of their freedoms—that if they failed to make a stand yesterday, the rights and freedoms they now enjoy might be fettered in the future.” In answer to administration claims that several countries have enacted draconian security laws since 9/11, the SCMP noted that Hong Kong “does not have a truly democratic political system to guard against possible abuse of the law by an administration. The government is not returned by popular vote and does not have to account to the people for its stewardship.”
As several papers observed, Article 23 was not the only reason for the enormous turnout. In a piece published before the protest, the SCMP said the march would provide a “democratic safety valve” for a population that feels “alienated and frustrated” in the face of so many problems: “Unemployment, salary cuts, the destruction of people’s wealth through falling property prices, the slow response to the Sars outbreak and the government’s inability to live up to its professed standards of accountability will all contribute to the turnout. Underlying all the stated reasons for unhappiness will be the feeling that the government does not listen to the people.”
The Standard said the huge turnout was “a vote of no confidence” in Hong Kong’s chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa: “Six years since the handover of sovereignty, Tung has lost credibility in the eyes of the people of Hong Kong. … Since the handover, the people of Hong Kong have watched as their overall standard of living deteriorated in a city that Tung likes to refers to as ‘Asia’s World City,’ a ‘world city’ where unemployment is now at record levels. For many people of Hong Kong, the future is clouded in uncertainty.” The Financial Times reported that for Tung’s critics, “his determination to push through [Article 23] and its harsh provisions symbolises his subservience to Beijing and refusal to protect Hong Kong’s more open political culture.”
The Standard wasn’t down on all political leaders, though. Chinese Premier Wen Jinbao, who visited Hong Kong for the handover anniversary but left the territory before the protest kicked off, received a positive review: “He showed himself as a man of the people” when he broke from his official itinerary to visit a SARS-affected neighborhood, and “[h]e connected with ordinary men and women in Hong Kong in a way our current leadership cannot.”