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Hong Kong Official Promises Protesters to be 'More Responsive' - 2003-07-02

Hong Kong's top official is promising to be more responsive to the community following a massive protest over proposed anti-subversion laws. But its critics say that if the government does not postpone action on the legislation, the stage may be set for another show of public frustration. Hours after up to half a million people marched in protest through Hong Kong, the city's Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa pledged to "listen more extensively" to the public.

But organizers of Tuesday's protest against anti-subversion legislation say Mr. Tung needs to do more than listen. They say the public will grow increasingly angry if the government pushes through the legislation and fails to address concerns about the laws and other issues, such as unemployment.

Pro-democracy legislator Audrey Eu says the people want action, not words.

Ms. Eu says the government should not rush to pass the laws while it has such low credibility and resentment is high among the people.

There is widespread fear the anti-subversion laws will erode the freedom and autonomy China promised when it took control of Hong Kong in 1997. Not coincidentally, the protests took place on a public holiday marking the sixth anniversary of the former British colony's return to China.

The city's legislature is to vote on the anti-subversion legislation on July 9.

Tuesday's march lasted more than six hours and the crowd filled a six-lane road for nearly five kilometers to the main government offices. It was the largest show of public discontent in this city of seven million since 1989, when a million people marched to condemn the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Article 23 of Hong Kong's constitution, known as the Basic Law, requires the territory to pass legislation against treason, sedition, and theft of state secrets. But opponents ranging from journalists to business and religious leaders say the legislation is too vague and imposes harsh penalties for offenses that are not clearly defined.

Hong Kong Justice Secretary Elsie Leung says people simply do not understand the Article 23 laws.

Ms. Leung says the fact the protests were allowed to take place shows the government respects freedom of expression.

Tuesday's protests took place against a backdrop of strong public dissatisfaction with the overall performance of Chief Executive Tung and his administration. Unemployment has soared and property values have tumbled since 1997. There have been complaints the government has mishandled such problems as education reform and the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome a few months ago.

Despite the degree of public frustration, the protest Tuesday was festive and peaceful. Marchers sang songs, and cheered speeches. The greatest sign of anger may have been posters many marchers carried showing Mr. Tung being hit in the face with a cream pie.

Lee Cheuk-Yan, who helped organize Tuesday's protest, says the stage is set for another show of public anger.

Mr. Lee says protesters must surround Hong Kong's legislature on July 9, when the anti-subversion legislation is to be voted on.

Archbishop Joseph Zen, who leads Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Church, says he worries a future demonstration may not be as peaceful as the one on Tuesday.

Bishop Zen warned the government not to wait until July 9 to heed public demands to put aside the legislation. He says anger over the proposed laws is at a peak, creating a dangerous situation.