Jun 29, 2006|
On Saturday, tens of thousands of us will take to the streets to march for universal suffrage. Few cities do demonstrations better than Hong Kong. Where else in the world could you cram 500,000 people through bottlenecked streets in the steaming heat, and still be able to take the kids and grandma along for a family day out? The July 1 march is a model of effective peaceful protest and good grace in an enormous crowd. But more than that, it’s one giant party with one huge political agenda.
“The march always has such a charged atmosphere,” says Alex Lee, 26, who has attended the march every year since it began in 2003. “It is an amazing feeling to be doing something you believe in and having so much fun in the process. I was there at the very first march and I was blown away by the sheer number of people who turned up to show how passionately they cared about the city they live in.”
The July 1 march began in 2003 as way for all of us to demonstrate against the Article 23 anti-subversion act and voice our frustration towards Tung Chee-hwa’s government. It was organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, which was formed by several existing organizations shortly after the act was proposed. It proved an awesome lesson in people power: half a million people turned out, Article 23 became headline news worldwide, the much-reviled Regina Ip was forced out of office and Article 23 bit the dust. Mission accomplished? Well, sort of.
While that first mass demonstration helped to stop Article 23, the march continues and every year the protest takes a new pro-democracy theme. This year’s main area of focus is the “fight for universal suffrage in 2007-08.” In other words, it’s the fight for everyone who calls Hong Kong home to be granted the right to elect our leaders.
But that’s not the only thing that people will be marching about this year – and that’s a problem, say some commentators. Among the other issues that will be appearing on banners in Central on Saturday is everything from gay rights and minimum wages to a ban on employing Bus Uncle. People will be protesting collusion between government and big business, the Tamar site proposals, school closures, exam cheats, the government surveillance regulations and even cat killers. It’s a “chop suey” approach that has newspapers such as Eastweek and Apple Daily up in arms. The problem, they say, is that such a mixed message may deter people from marching; people who don’t agree with every request on a mounting list of demands may simply decide not to show up. A smaller march is a weaker protest; to put it another way, divided we fall. It’s time, says Apple Daily, for a return to a simple, unified message: universal suffrage.
But veteran political activist and legislator Long Hair Leung Kwok-hung insists that the fight for universal suffrage unites all the marchers and believes a diverse range of demands can only add to the march’s effectiveness by giving people from all walks of life the opportunity to get their voices heard. “Hong Kong people do not need some Big Brother type telling them what they do and do not need to fight for,” he says. “The best way people can enjoy the march is to think about what’s really important to them, where they see their city going and what concerns them, then express this in their own way.
“The march is a festival for the people,” he explains. “It has become a type of showdown between the people and the government. It gives people a platform, a chance to be listened to and show the world what they want for the future of Hong Kong.”
Environmentalist and veteran marcher Marija Minic agrees: “The march gives everyone a chance to voice their personal concerns about living in Hong Kong, so you meet all walks of life,” she says. “Last year, there was everyone from gay-rights activists to little old Hong Kong ladies who just want to see their city better looked after. I personally march to highlight my concerns about the ever-mounting pollution and the government’s seeming disregard for the environment in Hong Kong.”
Every year, the CHRF takes on the task of organizing and promoting the march. “It takes a huge amount of preparation to manage the logistics of the march,” says CHRF commissioner and spokesman Verdy Leung. “And we really couldn’t pull it off without the help of our volunteers and the donations from the public.”
The preparations begin in April when the CHRF had to apply for two licenses from the government, one to sell promotional goods and distribute leaflets and the other giving permission to hold the march. Unfortunately, while the CHRF’s profile builds every year and more and more people become active members, there are new hurdles when it comes to logistics.
“Initially, it was fairly easy to get the licenses approved and we were granted access to key areas in Hong Kong and allowed to promote our cause in the evening and at weekends,” Leung explains. “But this year we have faced some real problems. The result of our application was a real shock, we were only granted a license to promote the march during the day rather than in the evening and we were not given access to important areas in Hong Kong.” No explanation was given as to the change in the license this year. “Some people have suggested it is because the march is becoming so successful,” Leung says. “But we were not given a reason as to why these new limits were imposed.”
Meanwhile, funding comes solely from public donations. “We don’t accept donations from big businesses because we don’t want anything to compromise our position,” Leung says. “The march costs more than $300,000 every year. Not only do we need to cover the basic costs of logistics but we also need to support the staff who work for us."
As a result, the CHRF has come up with innovative ways to promote its cause without splashing the cash. “Since May we have been holding street forums in Mongkok, where every week we discuss a new topic of democracy with passersby. It has really helped to build our presence in the community,” Leung says.
But as the authorities restrict where the CHRF can market the march and when it can run fundraising events, it must rely almost entirely on public support. “Money is tight, it really is a challenge to organize all this on such a small budget,” Leung says. “But people can be very generous. Last year one participant donated thousands of pendants in the shape of a phoenix [the symbol for suffrage], which were handed out to participants at the end of the march.”
Such generosity is what keeps the march going. Meanwhile, marketing and PR is left almost entirely up to word of mouth, the efforts of the campaigners who hit the streets to distribute leaflets and the local media.
Pro-democracy paper Apple Daily prints promotional stickers and turns the front page of its July 1 issue into a poster for the marchers to cut out and use. “The march is a great opportunity for us to connect with our readers and push a cause we believe in,” says Mark Simon of Next Media, which publishes Apple Daily. “We were the only media involved in the first year but it has been interesting to watch how others have followed our lead.”
Half the fun of marching is watching the experimental, unusual and often outrageous ways in which people demonstrate their beliefs. “People express their opinions in the most creative ways,” Leung says. “We sing and dance and there’s always a lot of street theater. People bring instruments along, make their own T-shirts and even wear crazy hats and outfits. It’s like one big carnival.”
And Minic says: “The last march was a total party. We built our own cart with speakers and a huge sound system, which created a great atmosphere. All these new people kept coming up to us to dance and chat.”
Competition is hot to come up with the most outrageous and inventive way of wearing your beliefs on your sleeve. Journalist Cassandra Chan decided to represent the importance of freedom in Hong Kong, so she bought a birdcage and wore it as a hat. “I wanted to send out a simple message and was inspired to wear a birdcage by Emily Lau from The Frontier [a pro-democracy pressure group], who once described Hong Kong as a birdcage. It got a lot of attention, which is what I wanted to achieve,” she explains. “The march was a great, fun way to spend a weekend. We stopped for beers along the way and went for dinner afterwards... I did have to take the cage off my head to drink though.”
The march is a well-organized protest. While the police are present to help with crowd control, it is entirely legal for marchers to take to the streets and express their opinions in a peaceful manner. For the past three years people have turned out in their thousands, yet according to the CHRF, no one has ever been arrested as a direct result of peaceful protest. “The march always attracts a lot of attention internationally,” Leung says. “It would certainly attract a lot of noise if people were arrested just for marching peacefully.”
Last year, demonstrators were even spotted plastering pro-democracy stickers on policemen’s helmets and singing songs mocking the government, but no attempt was made to curb their freedom of speech.
As Long Hair declares, “Democracy is not just parliamentary, it is empowerment of the people and that empowerment is always obvious on the march. People should get off their ass, take a break from the football and come join the real world cup.”