New Hong Kong Leader Faces Demands for Democracy

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Residents of Hong Kong took to the streets again on Sunday to protest Beijing's refusal to give the territory the level of democracy they believe they were promised when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Organizers say a quarter of a million people took part in the rally. The protesters included the outspoken head of Hong Kong's Catholic church, Bishop Joseph Zen, as well as a popular retired politician and former civil service chief.

Police said the figure was closer to 63,000.

Many of the men, women and children participating wore black to symbolize the "death of democracy," and banners bore slogans such as "Democracy is no threat to stability" and "Hong Kong loves democracy."

Turnout was larger than had been expected, and much larger than the previous large political demonstration, last July, when about 25,000 marched.

The event was the biggest challenge to Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed chief executive, Donald Tsang, since he took office last June.

Tsang's predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, left his post early, after mass protests in 2003 and 2004, sustained pressure from pro-democracy forces, and a show of unhappiness from Beijing about his handling of the dissent.

Sunday's march confirmed that Tsang, despite being far better-liked than the highly unpopular Tung, would face similar challenges.

The former British colony was handed back to China eight years ago under a negotiated "one country, two systems" agreement, which promised Hong Kong and its seven million people a significant level of autonomy and freedom to enjoy its capitalist way of life for 50 years.

Since then, the chief executive has been chosen by an electoral college of 800 Hong Kong residents handpicked by Beijing. Only one-half of the members of the 60-seat Legislative Council (LegCo) are directly elected; the rest are selected by mostly pro-Beijing professional and business groups.

Democrats argue that under the territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, Hong Kong's people should have universal suffrage by the next electoral cycle - the right to directly elect their chief executive in 2007 and all members of the LegCo in 2008.

But in April 2004, Beijing delivered an unprecedented ruling putting those hopes to rest, declared that only China could decide whether Hong Kong needed electoral reform, and that any move to change the way elections were held would need Beijing's approval.

China-watchers said the communist authorities were reluctant to allow Hong Kong too much freedom, lest that add to demands for democratization within mainland China itself.

In a bid to release some of the pressure that led to Tung's resignation, Tsang and his superiors in Beijing last October offered a small concession.

He said the size of the electoral college that chooses the chief executive would be doubled in size, to 1,600 members; and the LegCo would be enlarged from the current 60 seats to 70, although nearly half of the total would still not be directly elected.

Tsang hopes to win LegCo approval on Dec. 21 for the proposal.

But pro-democracy campaigners dismissed the limited reforms as window dressing. All 25 democrats in the legislature have threatened to veto the measure, which needs 40 votes to pass, unless Tsang offers a full timetable for democratic reform.

Tsang said after the protest march that there was "no room for change" on the offered concessions.

He appealed for public support, saying "what I am proposing is a step forward towards democracy."

Tsang told a press conference he shared the marchers' aspirations.

"I am 60 years of age. I certainly want to see universal suffrage taking place in Hong Kong in my time."

The march was supported by 24 of the LegCo's 25 democrats - one was ill - and by Anson Chan, a popular retired politician who at one time was thought to be a possible candidate for the chief executive post.

"I just feel there are moments in one's life when you have to stand up and be counted," said Chan, who took part in a pro-democracy march for the first time.

"For me, this is one of those moments," she added.

Zen, the Catholic leader, called Tsang's assertion that his concessions were a step towards full democracy "the biggest lie I have heard."

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said before the march that there should be "sober-minded discussions" on Hong Kong's political development.

It was an internal matter for China, which he said was "opposed to any foreign intervention."

Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a visit by Hong Kong's veteran democrat, Martin Lee, that the U.S. supported "democracy and universal suffrage" in the territory.

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