Listening is the duty of a responsible leadership

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2003, 12:00am

The anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty is a time for celebration - and for reflection. It provides an opportunity for people here to express their patriotism - and their view of the performance of those entrusted with governing Hong Kong since 1997. On that score, today's anniversary will see an expression of discontent which is both widespread and deep. In the past, July 1 protests have been relatively small and begrudgingly tolerated by the Hong Kong authorities. This year, the demonstration planned against the new national security laws is expected to attract tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. If this happened, it would be the biggest protest in Hong Kong since the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Those marching will come from all walks of life and will include many who have never taken part in a protest.

The national security legislation, required by Article 23 of the Basic Law and likely to be passed next week, is the catalyst for the protest. But there are other reasons for discontent. 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. This dissatisfaction must be expressed and today's march should act as a democratic safety valve: people will be able to feel that at least they have given voice to their unhappiness. But we urge those marching to act responsibly and carefully. With large numbers of people trying to move through confined spaces, panic - or even a single mis-step - could cause disaster.

The national security legislation, however, remains central to the protest. Many people simply do not accept the official assurances that their freedoms will not be affected. Opposition to the bill should not be confused with being unpatriotic, for the warm reception given to Premier Wen Jiabao this week confirms that patriotism abounds. Thus opposition does not imply a lack of concern for our nation's security, but is based on the belief that it must be balanced against the freedoms that mark Hong Kong as a unique city in Asia.

The national security consultation process is the point at which the desire to defend Hong Kong's freedoms meets with the feeling that the government does not listen. A record number of submissions was received but the results were inconclusive. Officials bungled the way the views were analysed and rejected calls for the publication of a white bill to allow consultation on the wording of the proposed laws. Instead, it urged people to trust the legislative process. But Legco's handling of the bill has shown it is better at implementing the wishes of the government than those of the people.

True, the government has tried to show it is responsive. Changes were made to the original proposals, and to the bill. But they have not been sufficient to ease public concerns. As Solicitor-General Robert Allcock suggested last week, the government has either been misunderstood, or just not believed. Either way, it has failed to achieve the level of consensus needed to give the laws legitimacy. This, however, will not prevent the bill from being passed next week.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has said the protest will discourage investment; Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee has suggested people will attend because they have nothing better to do on their day off. These two are entitled to their views but we hope the government does not ignore other views expressed today. If people protest, it is because they feel alienated and frustrated. The least the government can do is show it is listening.