Sat, Jan 30, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Hong Kong’s democracy stalls as frustration with system grows

By Keith Bradsher  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , HONG KONG

The political system in Hong Kong is increasingly paralyzed, and street protests are growing more confrontational as public dissatisfaction on economic issues and a lack of democracy is rising. At the same time, the pro-democracy movement here has splintered, weakening its ability to press for changes.

Protesters, many of them young people proclaiming their interest in democracy, have opposed building an expensive high-speed rail link to Shenzhen and Guangzhou. They are also upset that Hong Kong’s mostly unelected legislators approved the measure.

The demonstrations also reflect frustration on the part of the pro-democratic parties in territory that accuse China of having delayed or backtracked on commitments it made in the 1990s to allow people to directly elect a majority of lawmakers in the Legislative Council.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) has suffered a significant decline in his approval ratings in recent polls in recent months as he has grappled with rising local discontent.

Until recently, Hong Kong had a tradition of orderly political protests that were uncommonly polite by international standards. When 500,000 people took to the streets in 2003 to oppose successfully the introduction of stringent internal security regulations, the police did not make a single arrest.

Protests in the last few weeks, however, have been coarser. Youths have shouted obscene curses at police officers. Scuffles with officers have resulted in a series of arrests.

“We’re just sick of going to rallies that political parties organize, and we hold our banners and don’t accomplish anything,” said Christina Chan, a 22-year-old graduate student in philosophy who was arrested at her home this month on suspicion of assaulting police officers at two rallies.

Released on bail of HK$500 (US$65), she has not yet been formally charged and has denied any wrongdoing.

Under the terms of its transfer to Beijing’s rule, Hong Kong retains broad civil liberties but also a political system that gives much greater weight to the votes of the economic and social elite. Analysts say there is limited opportunity for youths to vent their unhappiness with dwindling social mobility, high unemployment, sharply rising university tuition and an urban planning process dominated by real estate developers.

Young people have borne the brunt of competition from low-salaried employees in China. They face rising competition for jobs in Hong Kong itself as banks and other high-paying employers increasingly hire Chinese college graduates with family connections in Beijing.

“This has been building for months, and I think we’re heading for even greater frustration,” said Michael DeGolyer, the director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, a coalition of academics who have traced the territory’s political evolution for 22 years.

But the five pro-democracy political parties in the political opposition have split deeply over tactics this winter, including a move by two of the parties this week to bring about by-elections.

Five lawmakers from two pro-democracy parties submitted letters of resignation on Tuesday that took effect at midnight on Thursday. The resignations will prompt by-elections that the five hope to turn into an informal referendum on introducing greater democracy before the next elections in 2012, instead of waiting until 2017 or later, as Beijing officials have demanded.

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