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POLITICS : China’s Approaching Rule Sets Hong Kong Rights Activists Abuzz as Gadflies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tsang Kin-shing left China during the Cultural Revolution 30 years ago, a time when people went to prison for just whispering against the government. So it takes courage for him to stand up now and shout protests against that same government, which will assume control of Hong Kong next year.

“They may arrest me after 1997. I’m expecting them to come get me,” he says, then takes a long drag on his cigarette. “But Hong Kong is a model for China, and if we do not speak up, China will also be silent.”

Tsang, 40, is a fixture at demonstrations here, a stocky fellow with the girth and tenacity to earn him the nickname “Bull.”

He’s a street fighter, willing to stop a visiting Chinese official’s limousine with his body and bang on the windows to hand over a petition. When the official, Lu Ping, would not stop, Tsang hopped in his sound truck, emblazoned with protest slogans, and dogged Lu for the entire week of his visit. Lu resorted to slipping out of back entrances and using decoy limousines to avoid Tsang.

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“How can they call themselves leaders?” Tsang asks. “They’re afraid of the people. They’re hiding from reality.”

At the same time, Tsang is a respected legislative councilor who recently donned an olive jacket and red tie for a different kind of protest: an official vote against China’s plan to dismantle the legislature, laying off lawmakers like him after Britain hands over control of the territory.

A former construction contractor, he admits that he doesn’t know which protest will be more effective in the long run.

Many take Beijing’s plan to dissolve the legislature as one of a series of signs that Hong Kong’s liberties may be in danger, despite China’s promise to maintain the territory as a capitalist “special administrative region” for 50 years.

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But with Hong Kong’s powerful business community focused on making the 1997 transition to Chinese rule a smooth one, and the average Hong Kong resident unwilling to stick his neck out, it’s up to a handful of gadflies to protect the community’s way of life.

Gadfly is a good term, says Lau Yuk-kai, but he prefers to think of his group of activists as ants.

“Ants are small creatures, easily trampled to death,” Lau, 37, says in rapid-fire English, “but together, they can move an elephant.”

He moves with a bouncing stride through the subway station wearing a backpack, holding a cellular phone in one hand and hefting a sheaf of immigration laws with the other. A beeper buzzes on his belt.

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“I’m a one-man office,” he says.

Understaffed and underfunded, the “ants” are nevertheless effective.

Fax networks and the Internet link them to hundreds of other tiny groups to share views and summon demonstrators. “We can mobilize more than 500 people in a couple of hours,” one protest organizer boasts.

The government counts nine marches and 139 protests in front of China’s de facto embassy over the last two years.

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The police are generally gentle with the marchers--there has been only one arrest in two years. Lau keeps his eye on those numbers too. He is also Hong Kong’s independent human rights monitor and reports to international watchdogs.

Hong Kong’s colonial government does not have a body devoted to human rights, he points out, or comprehensive antidiscrimination laws. In rural villages, clan rules still hold sway and women are not allowed to build and own their own houses.

But Lau’s focus is on protecting the progress that has been made after China takes control next year.

“Our job is to make sure our way of life is maintained, if not improved,” he says. “The problem is if they want to undo it.”

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Indeed, China wants to dispense with Hong Kong’s bill of rights, claiming that it contradicts the territory’s new post-transfer constitution. And while Hong Kong has signed most major international human rights treaties, China has not.

While few people in Hong Kong come out to demonstrate, one event left Hong Kong irreversibly politicized: the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. After the events of June 4 that year, more than 1 million people filled the streets of Hong Kong in emotional protest. Today, Lau says, it is stories of abuses across the border--journalists jailed and dissidents disappearing--that cause the most anxiety.

“If we can speak out now, we should,” Lau says.


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