Billed as a pillar of the city's success, the freedoms of Hong Kong people have been viewed as sacrosanct since the idea of the city's return to China emerged on the drawing board in the early 1980s. But as the handover to the autocratic communist regime drew near, those cherished rights began to look fragile. And never more so than in February 1997 with the high-handed scrapping of 25 pieces of legislation in full or in part by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the national legislature in Beijing. Among them were legislative efforts by the British colonial administration to enhance civil liberties. Also among the casualties was the amended Public Order Ordinance, by which action the NPC effectively restored a licensing requirement for processions, and lowered the number of participants in protests from 50 to 30 and for rallies without notification from 30 to 20. In what was seen as a major blow to the city's human rights protection, the NPC also repealed Articles 2(3), 3 and 4 of the Bill of Rights, stripping the law of its overriding status which was put in place to prevent the legislature from passing any law that went against the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Democrats and activists cried foul over the loss of what was seen as a crucial safeguard against intimidation by a sovereign authority notorious for its poor human rights record. But if the seeds for human rights abuse were sown before the handover, they do not seem to have flourished in the 10 years since. A glance at the number of public processions and notified public meetings in the adjacent table shows that except for last year, Hong Kong has held more than 1,000 public processions and meetings annually since 1997. Such public rallies were so frequent that The Washington Post gave the city the label of 'city of protests'. There was no massive suppression of the opposition in any blatant form. The kind of barefaced curbs on free speech known on the mainland have not appeared in Hong Kong. In fact, the people have managed to score a few notable 'victories' in their challenges to unpopular policy decisions by the government. The most phenomenal success was the attempt to thwart the highly unpopular national security law, drawn up in 2003 in response to Article 23 of the Basic Law. More than 500,000 took to the streets on July 1, 2003, to express discontent towards the law, both its content and the way it was promoted by the Tung Chee-hwa administration. The law had sought to fulfil Hong Kong's obligation under its mini-constitution to legislate against acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the central government, as well as theft of state secrets and to prohibit local political groups from establishing ties with foreign counterparts. With the withdrawal of support for the bill by Liberal Party leader James Tien Pei-chun, the government decided to shelve it. In 2004, the Housing Authority was forced to postpone an attempt to sell about HK$30 billion of government-owned real estate through the listing of the Link Reit, the world's largest initial public offering of a real-estate investment trust, after 67-year-old public housing tenant Lo Siu-lan launched a judicial review against the disposal plan. Ms Lo and her supporters fought the Link deal on the grounds that it undervalued public assets and fears that it could lead to higher prices for housing tenants. Her case was eventually taken to the Court of Final Appeal, where it was dismissed in July 2005. More recently, the campaign by a group of activists against the demolition of the Star Ferry pier in Central triggered a review of the government's policy on heritage conservation and a rethink on its consultation mechanism. However, any suggestion that the people had become more 'powerful' would seem too hasty to the city's ardent civil rights campaigners. The Article 23 legislation is due for a comeback, the Link Reit successfully launched its IPO and placed the management of public car parks and shopping malls at public housing estates in the hands of a listed entity, and the Star Ferry pier in Central can now be seen only in photographs. Any apparent successes in getting the government to reverse its policies were at best contingent on the political atmosphere of the day or the exploitation of the legal system, rather than being entrenched in the special administrative region's established system to handle public dissent. Human rights activists also pointed to some worrying trends in freedoms and civil liberties. Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai believes the city's civil liberty situation has remained fragile since the handover. 'It is unstable. It all depends on the top officials. People without much political awareness may think there is not much difference. But those who challenge the current system have to bear a high risk. '[The police] tend to enforce the law selectively. The Hong Kong Federation of Students, April Fifth Action and Falun Gong are often given 'special care' during rallies and protests.' Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a leading organiser of the march on July 1, 2003, said it had aroused Hong Kong people's awareness of their rights to express their opinions as citizens. But the veteran activist also noted growing obstacles to dissent, citing an increase in prosecutions against protesters and placing of administrative hurdles in the way of expressions of dissent. 'What worries me also is the increasing dominance of mainstream views in society, to an extent that society will become less and less diversified. 'While it is not a bad thing to sing praises for the handover, it will be problematic if celebrations are all we have to mark the occasion. There has to be a critical look at the road Hong Kong has taken since July 1997. We should not blindly take what is presented to us by the authorities,' he added. Mr Tsoi said the July 2003 march represented a pinnacle of social awareness. He said the sustaining of the enthusiasm by Hong Kong people to assert their rights would hinge largely on the economy and public's trust in the government. 'Compared with 1997, Hong Kong people are obviously more aware of their rights and are willing to speak for them. But if we take July 2003 as the point of comparison, then the level of interest has certainly declined,' he said. The question of universal suffrage for both the chief executive and the legislature, as well as the outstanding legislation for Article 23 of the Basic Law, are the two major issues that would put the relationship between the government and the people to the test. After his successful return to the chief executive post, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has promised he and his administration will adopt a more people-oriented approach to running the city. Whether his new philosophy of governance will succeed in taking Hong Kong through its forthcoming tests in unity is a question that remains to be answered.