Wed, Dec 21, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Protests teach Hong Kong a lesson

If we regard the way people take to the streets as a showcase of a nation's democracy, the recent protests against the WTO in Hong Kong have sent a message to the international community. Unfamiliar with international protesters, the Hong Kong riot police mobilized armored vehicles, tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters trying to break through the barricades. Many protesters were arrested, unsettling many WTO delegates.

In recent years, many countries have attempted to resolve trade differences via the WTO. However, the media have also given extensive coverage to anti-globalization activists eager to voice their displeasure. Although tens of thousands of Hong Kongers protested proposed amendments to Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law and the inability to elect their chief executive, that performance seemed rather passive in comparison -- chanting a few slogans before dispersing, rather like weekenders out for a stroll.

On the other hand, quite a few of the WTO protesters were well-trained and experienced. South Korea is a nation where people often take to the streets and its democracy was built upon such protests. Moreover, South Korea's student and labor unions are even more radical than its farmers. It is quite routine for them to protest against Japan, the US and their own government. In Hong Kong, South Korean farmers only made a token demonstration and called it quits when they felt their opinions had been heard, because they did not want to embarrass the police.

Taiwan's democracy was also won via street protests. And although protests in Taiwan tend to be noisy and rumbustious affairs, they always hold back from the point of bloody confrontation, for whoever incites direct violent conflict will not be tolerated by the media or the public. Therefore, Taiwanese protest groups in Hong Kong exercised restraint and did not look particularly active.

At the beginning of December, 200,000 people in Hong Kong marched to demand direct elections. Some warned that the demonstrators would be rioters, and seemed unaware that demonstrations are part of daily life in democratic countries. Last week's anti-WTO demonstrations were a revelation, and might even have altered the perception of democracy for many Hong Kongers. Democracy is about hearing the people's voice, and demonstrating is one way of making that voice heard. If people are the masters, then it is for them to directly elect their representatives and administrative chief. Reducing the number of appointed assembly members and calling it reform is not substantive and shows that the Hong Kong government still has a long way to go to achieve real democracy.

Although the WTO protest scenes were dramatic, this was certainly preferable to the recent deaths of protesters in Dongzhou in Guangdong Province at the hands of the Chinese police. But during the Hong Kong protests, the authorities arrested 14 people on charges of illegal assembly. This is quite ridiculous as thousands of people were involved. If these 14 were in fact guilty of rioting or assaulting a police officer, then of course charges should be pressed. That's how other democratic countries handle demonstrations. Otherwise, they should be released. How the authorities handle the aftermath of last week's protests and the subsequent treatment of the 14 prisoners looks likely to provide further insight on the prospects for further democratic development in the territory.

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