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Hong Kong Residents Growing Frustrated with Government - 2003-07-09


Hong Kong residents are increasingly frustrated with their government. Last week, half a million people demonstrated to oppose government efforts to pass anti-sedition laws critics say could erode basic freedoms. But many people are upset about several government policies perceived as failures.

When half a million marchers took to the streets in Hong Kong on July 1, they had a long list of grievances.

At the top of the list was new anti-subversion. Critics fear the proposed laws could curtail the city's freedom of speech and assembly.

But the demonstrators also used the march in the July heat to express their anger over what many see as an incompetent government that has let the economy falter and has backed away from many policies.

At one point, thousands of residents broke into a chant calling on Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to step down.

One protester, George Tai, says Mr. Tung does not have the public's interest at heart.

"I say our government is very arrogant and disabled and Hong Kong people suffer so much," he said.

Part of the anger comes from the territory's prolonged economic slump and the recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

Hong Kong's economy has been in a decline since the Asian financial crisis in 1997. The city's property and stock market began to slip shortly after it was handed back to China following more than 150 years of British rule.

Unemployment now stands at a record 8.3 percent and property prices have declined by as much as 60 percent.

The SARS outbreak, which claimed about 300 lives and sickened 1,700 people this year, also built up anger. As many as 13,000 people lost their jobs because visitors deferred travel to the city. Hotels, restaurants and shops all saw sales plunge.

A group of doctors on July 1 held banners saying the government could have acted faster to provide better protective gear to doctors and nurses.

One doctor blamed Mr. Tung for the high number of hospital workers infected with the SARS virus.

"We know there are a lot of problems, a lot of mishandling of the SARS," he said. "We demand an independent enquiry into the whole SARS affair."

To be sure, most Hong Kong residents acknowledge that many of the city's problems started elsewhere. SARS came from mainland China. The U.S. stock market's three-year contraction hurt the city, because its economy is closely tied to the United States.

Still, many people say Mr. Tung's policies have made a bad situation worse.

When Mr. Tung took office, he promised to make housing more affordable to lower and middle-income families, but that policy ended in an embarrassing retreat.

One doctor says Mr. Tung often falters on important decisions.

"He promised that they would construct 85,000 units of public housing, that was when he first started. That pushed the property market down," said the physician. "And then two or three years later, he said I forgot about it already. If somebody lied to you once, would you trust them again?"

Mr. Tung also backtracked on education reform, disappointing many students by suddenly scrapping a plan to subsidize university and vocational studies.

Government efforts to rein in a ballooning budget deficit were met with demonstrations by angry civil servants facing pay cuts. Talk of rolling back welfare and unemployment benefits makes residents worried.

Joseph Cheng a political scientist at Hong Kong's Baptist University, says people remain nervous about the government.

"People do not believe the government has a strategy that will pull Hong Kong out of its economic difficulties," he said. "People believe that the government is in fact protecting the rich people's interest and the Tung administration has favored a number of tycoons in the territory."

Professor Cheng says the persistent economic uncertainly has made residents want more from their leader and the territory's lawmaking body.

One July 1 demonstrator calling himself Mr. Leung, said Hong Kong's legislature needs to better reflect the people of Hong Kong.

"In Hong Kong, if they want to pass any law they want, they can do it because they control the whole thing," he said. "I think in the legislative council there should be a better balance."

Professor Cheng says July 1 emboldened residents to speak against the government.

He says demonstrators see the march as a success. Their demands for delaying the anti-subversion bill were met when Mr. Tung indefinitely postponed a final legislative vote on the proposed laws.

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