Tuesday, December 1, 2015   

The power of the people

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Surprisingly, the Star Ferry Pier protesters won RTHK Radio Three's Person of the Year 2006 contest. Why a handful of demonstrators who showed up way too late and whose protests had no effect triumphed this year poses a puzzle.

The young objectors even knocked the ever-popular former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-Sang out of the top slot.

If the contest, modeled on Time magazine's naming a most influential person or thing its Person of the Year - this year its You, if you did not already know - were decided by experts, someone such as Professor Anthony Hedley or Alan Leong Kah-kit would have the prize.

Hedley has been the driving force behind the smoking ban that took effect New Year's Day. Few smokers or non- smokers sickened by tobacco fumes would disagree that Hedley has made a huge impact on their daily lives.

The smoking ban, the first in a notoriously heavy-smoking China, made headlines globally.

And why these quixotic few beat such luminaries as Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun - recently appointed director of the World Health Organization, the first Hong Kong person ever appointed to such a high international office - Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, of the spectacular political resurrection, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, our now and sure-to-be future chief executive, or Leong, his against-all-odds challenger, appears strange indeed.

Leong stands on the cusp of securing enough nominations to ensure the first contested chief executive election under Chinese control. In the so-far only competitive chief executive election, in 1996, the British still ruled Hong Kong.

Some analysts argue we had a contested election then solely because all eyes were fixed on Hong Kong's imminent return to Chinese sovereignty.

With questions about the survival of our freedoms and democracy foremost in global concern, China had to permit a more open competition. But later, non-contested, elections, where only the chosen one got enough nominations to stand, many assert, showed China's true distrust of freedom and hence its inherent untrustworthiness as an international partner. The development of democratic elections in Hong Kong, as recent remarks by Taiwan show, is closely monitored by those who worry about China's increasing power.

Leong's nomination and the March vote have captured more attention than local people may realize.

I am also sure Michael Suen Ming- yeung has spent days scratching his head in discombobulation over the Star Ferry. He and the government are still trying to get a clue as to what triggered all the fuss. The unexpected popular reaction has so rattled the government they reportedly are considering setting up a heritage trust.

That this government would even consider ceding any power over land and development to a nongovernment entity is extraordinary. This underlines the importance of figuring out just what nerve the Star Ferry protesters touched.

You could argue that because Bus Uncle, made famous by his outburst on YouTube, came in second this annual popularity contest is wholly insignificant. But that both the first- and second- place winners represent reactions to provocations all too common in Hong Kong should give pause to a dismissive reaction.

The Bus Uncle incident touched nerves too. Increasingly overcrowded buses, trains, stores and pavements, combined with wages drastically cut during the 1998-2004 downturn, as well as involuntary unpaid overtime daily and Asia's longest work week - in the midst of constant noise and growing pollution - explains the supportive reaction to the young man's request to Bus Uncle to speak more quietly on his mobile phone. Hong Kongers also sympathized with Bus Uncle's outburst about the stress he felt.

The Bus Uncle reaction was rightly taken as a clear warning indicator that Hong Kongers teeter on the cusp of exploding. The government moved to cut the work week for civil servants and to raise their wages and urged businesses to do the same in the private sector. Contract workers are now being transitioned into full civil servants. Minimum wage legislation is, for the first time, being seriously discussed.

But it is not enough.

That so many professionals turned out for the Election Committee poll to support pro-competition, pro-democracy candidates over pro-business, pro- government establishment figures shows that discontent with selfish, out- of-touch, monopolistic business and governing elites has spread to more than just the grass roots.

Clearly, Hong Kongers want their views and needs taken as seriously as those of businessmen and bureaucrats. The RTHK contest results are another indicator that the days of cozy, unquestioned collusion among governing and business elites while the masses go along quietly, satisfied with crumbs from the rich and mighty, are over.

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