July 1 march has morphed into a road to nowhere
When half a million Hongkongers defied their reputation for political apathy and took to the streets in protest on July 1, 2003, it made headlines around the globe. Even more remarkable were its results: Article 23 legislation was scrapped, Beijing took notice and the then-chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, stepped down.
The political triumph of people power in the 2003 march is undeniable but, with it, came equally irrefutable repercussions. For one, the economies of diminishing returns have plagued the march's organisers since then. With each year's passing, it has been harder for them to attract the same critical mass. While the 'stars' - Article 23, plus the severe acute respiratory syndrome public health scare and economic insecurity - were perfectly aligned in 2003, no similar stars (at least none of the same size) have orbited in the same political trajectory since, and turnout for the march has dwindled.
Added to that is the biggest conundrum faced by organisers so far: the battle with the international media for 'legitimacy' - at least one that matters to Beijing. In order to get the same press treatment, the march must attract more than it did in 2003. The harsh reality is that headlines and cover stories are hard to come by, and 500,000 is a hard number to beat.
International press coverage gets Beijing's attention, but organisers also have to deal with the fact that they no longer have the shock appeal of 2003. The July 1 march has morphed into a sort of ritual - one that no longer lights up the radars of the central government and the international media the way it once did. Diminishing returns, in terms of real impact, are unfortunately not good incentives. It is no wonder then that, last year, independent pollsters logged a turnout of only between 17,000 and 19,000.
But what about this year? Many have speculated that the stars may be aligned after all, with the 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's June 4 gaffe, the global financial crisis and the swine flu epidemic. And, to be sure, Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp has not missed a beat. Building on the momentum of this year's June 4 vigil, pan-democrats have been busy beating that drum of social discontent louder than ever. The war cries are heard, the stakes are high and they are pulling out all the stops to pound this year's march into the public consciousness.
Former lawmaker and chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang has, for months, been touring schools and recruiting students to join this year's march; Commercial Radio has been working around the clock with its '100 Day Countdown to July 1'. Almost every guest on its phone-in shows has been asked whether he or she will be taking part in the march. Irrespective of grievances, all are welcome.
But, considering that people take to the streets to make their grievances known and voices heard, such mixing and matching of demands is a bit counterintuitive, if not counterproductive. The 20th anniversary of June 4 may be providing the momentum march organisers need, but carrying that over to July 1 will achieve little in Beijing - anything pertaining to the former is viewed and dealt with in a different realm. Adding universal suffrage to that raw-nerve mix may do more harm than good.
What is most worrying is that individual messages will be drowned out in what has turned into a competing ground for the claim to be society's biggest victims. What is ironically unsettling is that protesters with real grievances will become mere statistics. Rallying the people has turned into a numbers game played by the organisers and the government.
July 1 has not only turned into a ritual, from which, by definition, nothing new is expected to result; exercising our human right to protest has been turned into a twisted political show of hands not for participants, but for our politicians.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA