Politics of prejudice hold Down's children hostage

THERE are fears a misguided political campaign may be behind last week's death threats and acts of vandalism by Tung Tau residents angry at the proposed opening of a Down's syndrome day centre on their estate.

At first the attacks looked like yet another spontaneous outbreak of prejudice against this harmless section of the community.

Tenants on the estate had previously clashed with the Government over plans to open another hostel for the mentally handicapped nearby.

The hostel was supposed to open in March but these plans were postponed due to the residents' pressure. The atmosphere cooled.

But when plans to open the Down's syndrome day centre were made public, the same tenants felt their opinions were being ignored.

Their fury erupted and last Saturday's attack on the Down's syndrome centre was the result.

That, at least, is the straightforward chain of events. But it is not, it seems, the whole story. For behind the banners and the aggressive slogans of the demonstrators lies a complex agenda of politics, prejudice, suspicion and fear.

At the centre of this drama are allegations the campaigns against the day centre and the hostel may be politically motivated, with residents' votes in next year's district board elections and the 1995 Legislative Council polls acting as the dubious prize.

Establishing exactly which individuals or political organisations are expressing support or tacit approval is far from simple, but some residents allege the pro-China Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and the area's current district board member Fung Kwong-chung of the Liberal Party sympathise with the residents who oppose the provision of facilities for mentally handicapped on the estate.

The two main tower blocks involved in the protest are Kwai Tung House and Chun Tung House, blocks that house many newcomers to the estate.

What is clear is that the campaigners are well organised and adequately resourced. Many observers say there are figures lurking in the background, giving the directions and planning the strategy.

But few people in the know are willing to name names. The silence is deafening.

Both Mr Fung and FTU standing committee member Chan Yuen-han - who fought and lost the Legislative Council seat representing Tung Tau at the last election - denied helping the protesters' campaign, but both defended the residents' right to express their opinions, however strong these might be.

Liberal Party leader Allen Lee Peng-fei dismissed any suggestion his colleagues would use such an issue for political gain. He found last week's attack ''very unfortunate'', and added ''it was very wrong to use violence''.

Mr Fung said the campaigns were ''just views I have a responsibility to reflect''.

''Everybody in society has the right to use different methods in reflecting their views.'' Ms Chan said: ''Everyone has the right to do something on their own, no matter which organisation they belong to.'' She said public figures had to keep an open mind and accept all opinions being expressed, adding the best way to solve the problem was to educate the public on the issue.

But it does not end there. The Legislative Council member representing Tung Tau, United Democrat Lau Chin-shek, has become the target of a hate campaign waged by the protesters.

Posters pasted around the Kwai Tung House carry slogans like: ''Lau Chin-shek, Cheung Man-kwong and Lam Kui-shing [both UDHK Legco social welfare panel members] step down at once'', ''Every patriotic countryman, the Xinhua agency (NCNA) are helping us'',''United Democrats of Hong Kong and Meeting Point are hypocrites'', and ''The sun-setting United Democrats of Hong Kong conspired with the sun-setting Government''.

Resident Cheung Wing-ching said he would not re-elect Mr Lau, saying: ''He is only concerned about himself and does not care about our sentiments.'' Mr Cheung said he would support Ms Chan, who lost to Mr Lau in the last Legco elections.

Ms Chan is widely expected to contest the Wong Tai Sin/San Po Kong seat again in 1995.

Another Kwai Tung resident said the bills were put up by FTU members, but said they acted as individuals. ''They did it personally, not on behalf of the Federation.

''I know some members of the Federation live in the building, and they did this behind our backs.'' Social worker turned Legislative Councillor Fred Li Wah-ming said similar slogans appeared in Laguna City against a plan to open a halfway house for people recovering from mental illness.

Most of the residents of the Kwai Tung House interviewed by the Sunday Morning Post were opposed to the facilities for the mentally handicapped.

An honest - if controversial - opinion came from one tenant supporting the protesters when he said: ''I bet you that no one living in this building would support this centre.'' But he did not believe the most recent attacks were carried out by local residents: ''I think there must be someone on the back stage who wants there to be a storm again. We had calmed down already.'' Poon Wah of the Tung Tau Residents' Association - an organisation which does not object to the Down's Syndrome centre - also believes outside forces are at work.

''Only with the substantial resources provided to the residents could they then embark on such a large-scale protest,'' she said.

''For example, there was a signing petition at the very beginning of the conflict, and they got signatures from 400 and 100 families in Kwai Tung House and Chun Tung House respectively in just one and a half days. It is very obvious they were well organised.

''They had people on duty around the clock waiting at the lobbies. There must be someone co-ordinating all the matters for them.

''There was even someone on duty to break the fire alarm, waking up the residents at midnight on March 3, when the police came and confrontation broke out.

''They had detailed duty scheduling, and this was beyond the ability of normal residents.'' Residents' association co-ordinator Yiu Kam-pui said: ''It could be a big advantage in the District Board election 1994 if you could get support from the two trident blocks [the two blocks where most of the protesters are believed to live].

''There were only 20,000 voters in the district, and it would be very important to get the thousands of votes from the two buildings.'' There are 600 households in each building.

Meanwhile, the members of the Mutual Aid Committees (organisations that represent the residents of each tower) said Mr Fung helped them in communicating to the Government their opposition to facilities for the mentally handicapped being opened on their estate.

Mr Yiu said the members of the committees also had their meetings in Mr Fung's office.

One resident against the facilities, Wong Yuk-king, said: ''Fung Kwong-chung has been most helpful in the event, and I think I will vote for him in the district board elections next year.'' Another, Lo Chui-ping, said Mr Fung reflected their views while Legco members only wanted publicity.

Ms Lo added: ''The Federation of Trade Union's Chan Yuen-han is on our side. For the Legco seat, I will vote for Chan, and on the district board level, I will vote for Fung.'' But Mr Yiu of the residents association added: ''We found there were some members of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions involved [in the anti-hostel campaign].

''Someone could even organise a 40-minute meeting with Xinhua for them. You know it's hard for others even to send a letter to the agency.'' Kwai Tung House Mutual Aid Committee vice-chairman Wong Kwok-keung said legislator Mr Lau ''could forget about being re-elected'' in the area. But when asked why they sought the assistance of the FTU and Xinhua, committee chairman Wong Wing-ki replied itwas the suggestion of the residents, and changed the subject.

A floor representative of Kwai Tung House, which opposes the proposed facilities, said: ''In March, we called on Lau Chin-shek many times. Finally he showed up with other legislators and government officials in the estate and acted a play here, pretending to listen to our opinion.'' Meanwhile, Hong Kong Down's Syndrome Association director, Alison Tam Yuet-ching, believed a group of ''radical'' residents could be responsible for the trouble.

''We have constantly kept in dialogue with the Mutual Aid Committee of the Chun Tung House, and most of them support us.

''We organised some seminars with the residents, and they show no opposition to the centre, though they do not welcome it.'' Another resident, who helps in the organising of the Mutual Aid Committee in Kwai Tung House, said both committees of Kwai Tung and Chung Tung Houses were against the protesters.

''I don't know the real picture behind this, but it seems to be something more than just opposition to the Down's Syndrome Resources Centre.

''As a matter of fact, after the incident, we told our residents not to act destructively,'' he said.

The centre at the focus of the latest row - the Down's Syndrome Resources Centre - is expected to open in early September, but that schedule is being re-appraised.

Some residents blamed the current campaign on former Kowloon Walled City tenants who moved to Tung Tau recently. These areas were renowned for their drug and crime problems.

However, one resident who was resettled from the Walled City a year ago, said ''that is nonsense''.

''In fact, the resident representatives come from all areas, not only the Walled City. Maybe some of the Walled City residents are experienced in organising activities against the Government, but they can't blame us for that.'' Residents in the Kwai Tung and Chun Tung blocks started moving in during the last two years, coming mainly from the Walled City, Sau Mau Ping and Tsz Wan Shan. Tung Tau Estate is situated between Wong Tai Sin and Lok Fu.

Tung Tau Public Estate was first built in the 1970s, and has been undergoing a seven-phase government redevelopment programme since the 1980s. The last phase was completed recently.

The estate has a large elderly population. Over 6,900 flats have occupants of 60 years of age, constituting more than a quarter of the total residents in Tung Tau.

It must be noted not all estates in Hong Kong have reacted to plans for facilities for the mentally handicapped.

The Lok Wah Adult Training Centre in Kwun Tong has operated for six years with the blessing of residents. Officer in charge Joseph Au Wai-man said: ''We have never had any complaints.

''In fact, our neighbours are very friendly towards us. For example, the shops and the restaurant in the estate always give us discounts. We also have more than 20 volunteer workers now.'' He stressed it was very important for hostels to be located in residential areas so trainees could eventually be integrated into the society.

His theory on the Tung Tau trouble? ''Some political figures went to the estate to express their opinion whenever there was a problem. I don't know what their intentions were.

''I never heard any complaints about such facilities before the conflict in Tung Tau. So, there must be something wrong.''