July 1 march

Another July 1, another challenge

Regina Ip says while we've seen no repeat of the conditions that led 500,000 people to protest in 2003, the upcoming test of political reform is no less serious, requiring good sense prevail

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 1:39am

In most parts of the world, the establishment of a new nation or territory normally calls for celebration of the achievement of self-determination by a distinct community. National days are typically marked by joyous commemoration, with fireworks, fairs, carnivals and parades across a nation, big or small.

The celebration of Hong Kong's establishment as a special administrative region of China, however, is more challenging. Historically a part of China, self-determination has never been constitutionally or practically viable. Despite being snatched from China more than 150 years ago, this predominantly Chinese city has somehow got used to Western ways.

The change of allegiance and identity in 1997 was met with considerable jitters. While the enactment of the Basic Law, setting out detailed constitutional guarantees of "one country, two systems", went a long way towards calming fears, it has never been as effortless to celebrate the SAR's establishment on July 1 as though the city lifted itself up after a heroic struggle.

After reunification, the people of Hong Kong generally breathed a deep sigh of relief as the Chinese government was seen to have adhered scrupulously to "one country, two systems". The outbreak of avian flu and the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98 dealt heavy blows to Hong Kong's economic well-being and confidence, from which the city took a while to recover.

Then came the fateful year of 2003, when the combination of the government's unsuccessful campaign to enact a controversial national security bill, coupled with the unprecedented outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome and the concomitant sharp fall of home values and economic devastation, gave rise to a historic mass protest on July 1.

Rightly or wrongly, since that mass protest of an estimated half a million citizens 10 years ago, Hong Kong has become, as political scientists put it, a "post-mobilisation" society.

Organisers of the phenomenal 2003 protest, hell-bent on maximising their political gains emanating from the mass turnout, have spared no effort every year to create another record-breaking protest.

The fact is that, in 2003, an unfortunate confluence of unique and tragic events combined to produce the epic turnout. A decade on, despite considerable discontent at deep-rooted problems like high land prices and the housing shortage, the year thus far is no annus horribilis. With full employment and a mildly expanding economy, the conditions are not there for the organisers to recreate another mass protest of crisis proportions.

Estimates of the size of the turnout varied widely, ranging from the police's 66,000, to the organisers' count of 430,000. Estimates by two separate units of the University of Hong Kong, of 93,000 and 103,000, are likely to be closer to the mark.

Despite the organisers' well-orchestrated efforts to demonise the government - prominently the chief executive - and spread tales of disunity within the administration, they managed to mobilise their diehard supporters, but not the general public.

As the procession got under way, tens of thousands of pro-government supporters took part in district celebrations and even a rock concert featuring popular Korean artists.

In the air-conditioned malls, Hong Kong people's favourite holiday haunts, families enjoyed a day of rest and recreation at cinemas, shops and restaurants.

To the extent that they represent the ordinary people of Hong Kong who are oblivious to political mobilisation, their relaxed demeanour sends important messages about the real state of the people.

In spite of all that, the turnout of roughly 100,000 citizens on July 1 deserves our serious attention. The numbers have ebbed and flowed in the past decade, dropping to conspicuous lows in 2005 and 2008, which coincided with former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's honeymoon years.

The numbers ratcheted up steadily as discontent with Hong Kong's stagnation and inability to tackle structural problems grew.

As in the past, protest marchers raised a multitude of issues, ranging from equal rights for sexual minorities to the allocation of more resources for people with disabilities, and the medical sector. Yet the dominant theme of the protest was universal suffrage, culminating in a mass gathering of several thousand at Chater Garden to publicise the "Occupy Central" movement.

The organisers' slogan - "Self- determination by the people, Immediate universal suffrage, Occupy Central, All set to go!" - sums up the main thrust.

The July 1 mass protest was clearly engineered as a curtain-raiser to the impending debate on constitutional reform, prominently the election of the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017 - a fundamental change to our system. If the debate is not managed properly, it could have destabilising consequences for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong awaits with hope and anxiety - hoping that the chaos unleashed by people power in Turkey and Egypt will be an object lesson and a wake-up call to all to avoid chaos, and hoping that good sense will ultimately prevail and a consensus achieved.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party