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Hong Kong Residents Protest New Security Bill - 2003-07-01

Several-hundred-thousand Hong Kong residents took to the streets in a peaceful protest against proposed national security legislation. Many other grievances were raised during the march, which reflected widespread public dissatisfaction with the overall performance of the Hong Kong government.

Traffic through much of Hong Kong's main districts was brought to a standstill as throngs of people braved sweltering heat to protest anti-subversion laws due to be enacted on July 9.

People from all professions and all walks of life, several times the number originally predicted, filled two public parks and stretched for several miles through the former British colony's busiest areas.

There was no initial estimate of the crowd by the police, and, many hours after the march began, no official reaction from the government.

The people marched peacefully, chanting slogans and holding up banners expressing disproval of the new laws, of the official handling of the recent SARS outbreak, and of, what is widely criticized as, general incompetence by the post-colonial government.

The demonstration coincided with the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's 1997 handover from Britain to China.

Opposition to the laws has united business and labor groups, doctors and lawyers, journalists and community leaders, all of whom fear the legislation will allow China to curb basic freedoms under the pretext of national security. The U.S. House of Representatives and the British Government have also spoken against passage of the laws.

Pro-democracy leader Andrew Cheung chanted to a crowd to oppose the "evil law" and "give power back to the Hong Kong people".

There has been criticism of the way the new laws were fast-tracked through Hong Kong's lawmaking body, and many people were angered by the fact that the government refused to publish the full wording of the legislation until after a period of public consultation ended.

Bishop Joseph Zen, the Catholic Archbishop of Hong Kong, told the crowd the people had no choice but to protest. He said government leaders have ignored the will of the people.

Legal experts fear the new laws provide a foundation in Hong Kong for banning such groups as the Roman Catholic Church and Falun Gong - already banned on the Mainland.

George Tai, a publisher, said he fears he could face legal problems under the new laws if material he prints is considered subversive.

"Our freedoms of reading material will be limited…" he said. It is already the law in China that you cannot say any thing about Tibet, the Dali Lama, things against the China government."

Popular opposition to the laws is accompanied by wide discontent over Hong Kong's general decline since the handover. Unemployment has climbed to more than eight percent, a record, while property values have fallen by as much as 60 percent.

The administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who is effectively appointed by Beijing, has been accused of being indifferent to popular concerns. The large turnout for the protest, estimated by the organizers at up to half a million, suggests that those concerns are considerable.