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Hong Kong Residents Becoming More Politically Active - 2003-08-22

Hong Kong residents are turning out in unusually large numbers to register to vote, support political parties and even embark on careers as politicians. Much of the new enthusiasm is coming from a younger generation, inspired by recent protests against proposed security laws.

There is a new spirit of political participation in the aftermath of Hong Kong's recent political crisis.

Marianne King, a musician in her 30's, wrote many of the tunes performed at a series of July rallies that called for greater democracy and an end to proposed security laws that many fear could harm the city's freedoms. She says her songs ask questions about what Hong Kong people need.

"That song was saying… who says Hong Kong people should just be an economic animal, that we should not have political power to better our city? I sang that in the protests," she explained. "I think it suits [the situation] very well."

Ms. King says she wants to put her music career aside in the coming months to campaign for a seat in Hong Kong's Legislative Council in next year's election.

Half a million Hong Kong residents took to the street on July 1 to protest security legislation the government had presented to lawmakers. Demonstrators criticized the government for ignoring public opinion about the legislation and the opposition lawmakers who warned the wording was too vague.

Tens of thousands of residents joined two other rallies later in July, to demand greater democracy and question the leadership of Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Mr. Tung was chosen by a small group of people approved by the central government in Beijing.

Joe Li, a woman in her 30s, is another potential political candidate inspired by the July rallies.

She is considering running for one of the district councils, which help administer the city. "I think the political crisis encouraged a lot of young people to commit themselves in a movement to change the situation," said Ms. Li.

She hopes to attract young voters during her campaign, and tackle issues that older lawmakers do not touch.

"For example, we talk about the unemployment of young people, but at the same time, we talk about sex education and gender education," she said.

Ms. Li says more young people, unable to find work, are starting to volunteer for civic action groups, supporting everything from minority rights to environmental protection.

She says it is through these groups that youths are gaining an interest in influencing public policy.

Roddy Shaw, a human rights activist and law student at Hong Kong University, says youth groups played a role in drumming up support for the July 1 protest.

"If you look at the demonstration, there are actually 2,000, [or] 3,000 students walking in the protests, voicing out their demands, and actually a number of them are high school students," he said. "They had not had such a level of participation in the past. I think that's quite a first for Hong Kong and a good sign for the young generation."

Just days after people took to the streets on July 1, the government put the controversial security legislation on hold. A few weeks later, two of Hong Kong's most unpopular government ministers resigned. And Chief Executive Tung met for the first time with his political opponents.

Mr. Shaw says many young protesters felt encouraged by changes government made after July 1 and are becoming more interested in politics.

Hong Kong's electoral office reports that in the past two months, 310,000 people applied to register to vote in the district council elections being held in November.

That is approximately twice the number of people who registered in the last district council election in 1999.

Political parties, such as Hong Kong's Democratic Party and Liberal Party, say they have also seen a small surge in membership applications in the aftermath of July 1.