Protests not in HK interest, chief says

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2010, 12:00am

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen yesterday called protesters irresponsible for clashing with police, and urged them to reflect on their actions.

While he pledged to improve consultation through various channels in the wake of the violence sparked by Saturday's vote to fund the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou, he said it would take more than consultation to bridge divisions.

His remarks, critics said, show the government has learned no lesson from the opposition to the line, and represent a complete change of attitude from last week to please Beijing.

Speaking to the media two days after the HK$66.9 billion budget for the express rail link to Guangzhou was approved by the Legislative Council, Tsang took a tough line on protesters who clashed with police.

'The irresponsible behaviour of some protesters trying to storm into Legco violated the core values of Hong Kong, the spirit of the rule of law and the general interests of society. The government and the general public will absolutely not accept such behaviour,' he said.

'These clashes to disrupt social order not only will not defend freedom of speech, but will suffocate peaceful and rational expression of opinion. Protesters must reflect.'

The rail project, approved by a 31-21 vote, had the support of a majority in the community and among lawmakers, Tsang emphasised three times.

The campaign against the link would not weaken the government's confidence in implementing other infrastructure projects, which Tsang sees as drivers of economic development.

'In other developed countries, views about major infrastructure projects are diverse ... this is understandable. Divisions cannot be bridged only by consultation,' he said. More channels to gauge views would be considered.

Tsang reportedly reviewed Saturday's incident with top officials in their regular morning meeting yesterday.

As a follow-up action, the undersecretary for transport and housing, Yau Shing-mu, visited Tsoi Yuen village in Yuen Long and reiterated to villagers facing eviction because of the line that they had an extra month to register for compensation. More than 120 of the 150 households have registered. Their village will be demolished to make way for a depot.

Tsang's hard line on the protesters was echoed by Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, who said protesters broke the law by blocking the road and clashing with police in the attempt to storm Legco. 'I strongly condemn these acts which disturb social order,' he said.

Asked whether police issued warnings before repelling protesters with pepper spray, Lee did not respond. He said only that officers had clear guidelines on how to use the spray and had acted with much restraint.

Using spray was the minimal force they could have used, he said.

A police spokeswoman said the force was following up the incident and that no one had been arrested.

Meanwhile, Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng defended her decision not to talk to the crowd face to face after the funding vote on Saturday.

She had considered stepping out of Legco to talk to the protesters, she said. 'But the priority is safety - not my own safety or even my personal honour, but the safety of everyone, including protesters and police.'

Police had advised her to remain inside to avoid causing chaos, she said. Guarded by police, the minister and pro-government lawmakers made their way to a nearby MTR station after being trapped for six hours.

Tsang's perceived 180-degree change of attitude - since his pledge to step up communication with young people on Thursday - was seen by some in political circles as an attempt to please Beijing, which expects a hard-line approach to be taken against social instability in Hong Kong.

'There had already been rumours that Beijing saw the weekend clash in Hong Kong as rioting,' said Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat.

'It is possible that Donald was under pressure to show that he can manage the situation by turning hard-line despite trying to appear conciliatory last week.'

Any further moves by the government to antagonise young people would only impel them to become more radical, he said.

Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, said by emphasising the majority's support for the railway plan, Tsang showed clearly that he had not listened to the opponents' views.

'The issue at stake is how the government should handle the minority view. It is very disappointing to hear Tsang talk about the same old theory of development right after such a demonstration,' Ma said.

Christina Chan Hau-man, one of the protesters trying to get into the Legco building on Saturday, said she had only wanted to stop lawmakers from voting, and had not attacked police officers. 'I want to condemn police who used violence disproportionate to what we were doing,' she said.

Chan King-fai, a leader of the Post-80s Anti Express Railway Group, said the blockade of the Legco building was aimed at getting Eva Cheng to talk, and should not be seen simply as clashes. Moving aside barricades was common in local protests, and the people moving them should not be suppressed by pepper spray, he said.

Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai, who witnessed the protests with about 10 observers, said police should not condemn protesters, who in the beginning wanted only to walk slowly around Legco. They did not block exits from the car park until their way was blocked by police, he said.