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Security is Hong Kong's Biggest Headache Ahead of WTO Ministerial Conference


The Sixth WTO Ministerial Conference is the largest event Hong Kong has handled since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The security operation for the event is the biggest the city has ever mounted.

When Hong Kong offered to host the conference during the 2003 trade talks in Cancun - a meeting that was marred by violent protests - many people thought the city was brave to take on the challenge.

But John Tsang, Hong Kong's secretary for commerce, industry and technology, and chairman of the sixth WTO Ministerial Conference, is confident the city is more than capable of managing an event of this size and complexity.

"Having said that, we have never underestimated the task ahead of us," he said. "That is why we set up a dedicated team within the government more than a year ago to plan for every aspect of the conference - from logistics to security, to strengthening our links and liaison not only with the WTO Secretariat in Geneva but with a whole range of member economies as well."

The WTO Conference is a concerted, government-wide project - costing about $32 million. The coordination office's staff has worked closely with all government departments to make sure the weakling event runs smoothly.

More than 11,000 people will crowd into the Convention and Exhibition Center in the city's Wanchai district, starting December 12. Apart from 6,000 dignitaries, there will be around 3,000 journalists and 2,000 representatives of non-governmental organizations.

Petty Lai of the coordination office says one of the biggest challenges her office faces is how to move all these people around in the center of a crowded city.

"There are so many ministers and high level officials so the transport arrangement will be quite difficult - on top of the already heavy traffic in Wanchai that we are having every day," she said.

Police will cordon off the Convention Center and surrounding areas, access to nearby buildings will be limited, and public transportation will be diverted during the conference.

Companies in the area have been advised not to schedule important meetings during the meeting, and some schools will close on the opening day of the conference because of expected road congestion.

But Hong Kong's biggest worry is the possibility of violent protests - like the ones that marred the WTO meetings in Cancun and Seattle. The Hong Kong meeting is expected to draw more than 10,000 local and overseas anti-globalization protesters.

Alfred Ma, the head of the Hong Kong Police Force, says officers will be on high alert. "The experience that we have witnessed in Cancun, Seattle, Geneva - we can never predict for sure how the demonstrators would behave," he said. "We have to be prepared psychologically, also in terms of equipment, training, skills, tactics."

The Hong Kong police will mount their biggest security operation ever. Officers have received special training and new riot gear to handle the event. Security experts have observed other major international events in recent months and have applied the lessons learned to the preparations in Hong Kong.

Every government department has emergency plans to prepare for potential chaos. The plans cover not only violent protests but also terrorist attacks, including cyber-terrorism. Airport security will be stepped up and a prison in central Hong Kong will be used as a holding center for troublemakers. Public hospitals will be prepared for casualties. And according to local media, the city is even said to have fixed the bricks on the pavement around the convention center with extra strong mortar so demonstrators can not easily pick them up to throw.

The police and government officials also are working closely with the Hong Kong People's Alliance on WTO, a network of local organizations that is coordinating anti-WTO events in the city. They have agreed on routes for three major protest marches, on locations for demonstrations close to the convention center and on an area where protest groups can stage anti-WTO events.

Mabel Au of the alliance says Hong Kong has a tradition of peaceful demonstrations and the majority of the overseas groups have a non-violent position as well. But she does not rule out that a minority of the protesters could resort to violence.

The alliance has trained about 500 volunteer marshals to coordinate and supervise marches and lead people to safe areas should violence break out.

"We are trying to minimize any chaos situations [from] happening. We are helping the Hong Kong public and Hong Kong as an international city to build up an image of a city that is embracing democracy, freedom and freedom of speech," said Ms. Au.

Some local critics say the government in its WTO preparations and public comments has over-emphasized potential problems and has not done enough to stress the issues the WTO is grappling with.

The organizers, however, say they have worked to address all possible problems. If the conference runs smoothly, they say, it will be a showcase for the city's ability to host large international events, and will bring more visitors in the years to come.

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