Our finest hour

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2003, 12:00am

For many years, Hong Kong's social and political movement has been like a child at the back of a crowd - watching the parade with limited participation, but with occasional shouting and jeering. Despite the supposedly transparent and accountable ministerial system, most people seemed to think the government's power was absolute, and therefore underestimated their own power to change it - until last Tuesday.

In a historically unprecedented challenge to the government's power, 500,000 took to the streets to tell their political leaders they had had enough. The proposed national security legislation - Article 23 - was a trigger for the massive eruption of discontent. The march was a showdown with an administration that has continually refused to listen to or communicate with the public.

People from all over Hong Kong, representing all walks of life, took to the streets not because this anti-government movement had suddenly become hip, but because they felt alienated and dispossessed. In some cases, their lack of security might have been an abstract feeling - such as a loss of identity, of a direction or of a sense of belonging - but the need and desire to speak up was real.

The overwhelmingly orderly conduct of the half-million marchers represented a show of solidarity, dignity and pride. The message was powerful and poignant. In a world of spreading political instability, Hong Kong showed that it is still a rare exception despite its growing discontent with the administration. This is a unique political phenomenon and may be enlightening to millions in social and political movements around the globe.

The march will go down in history as Hong Kong's single most powerful political event. It has, to a great extent, changed the way the government behaves, the political landscape, the way members of the public feel about themselves and their relationship with those in power. From the public's point of view, it will be remembered as a celebration of freedoms and a pressure-release valve that has strengthened people's beliefs.

As for the government, it will serve as a reminder that suppressing the public for too long creates a need to let off steam, which could be a threat to social order and their very political existence.

This form of expression will continue to take place as long as people feel compelled to seek ways to vent overflowing discontent and anguish. These celebrations will become increasingly popular as a form of sincere political and social expression by the Hong Kong public. Those who took part in the July 1 march must have felt an intense rush to be part of such an emotional solidarity movement, and been thrilled by the shared political participation. Such a powerful and passionate response will guarantee the sustainability of similar celebrations in future.

But, unfortunately, the administration must include some of the dumbest people around. It took this government days to make a formal response, to come out of hiding and face the music. Was it really that difficult to analyse what this united, big voice was asking for?

Why is it so hard for this government to listen? What is going through the minds of officials who are still trying to put the pieces together? The real picture is pretty clear and intact. Isn't there a single person in the administration with the decency and honesty to admit that the preservation of national security is only a pretence to throw civil rights out the window?

The people of Hong Kong have spoken, and proven that they can free themselves from fear and recognise their own power. It is time for the government to free itself from its preoccupation with restriction and control. It is time to recognise the people's power and speak the truth.

Luisa Tam is the Post's Deputy News Editor