Jun 29, 2003

Hong Kong will mark its sixth anniversary under Chinese rule on July 1 with a huge protest march over proposed national security legislation which many fear will restrict fundamental freedoms.

"It will be a mass protest against the legislation of the security laws, with some estimated 100,000 people participating,"

Tsoi Yiu-cheong, spokesman for the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of more than 40 pro-democracy, religious and human rights groups, told AAP.

The mass demonstration is timed to coincide with anniversary celebrations to mark the former British colony's reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Despite planned festivities, Tsoi said people were in no mood to celebrate because of the imminent enactment of a national security law that is feared could curtail freedoms previously guaranteed for 50 years under the "one country, two systems" principle under which the city was returned to China.

There is mounting fear the new law banning treason, sedition, theft of state secrets and subversion, which Hong Kong is required to pass under Article 23 of the Basic Law, its mini-constitution, could also stifle freedom of speech and strangle the free flow of information.

The legislation is expected to be passed on July 9.

"This is a critical time," said Tsoi. "It is our freedom that is at stake.

"We want to show the central government in Beijing that what people in Hong Kong want is full democracy."

Protesters will vent their grievances, from religious groups to professionals dissatisfied with the state of the economy in the wake of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, he said.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is to attend the handover celebrations, in his first visit to the territory since assuming the post in March.

Wen will attend the signing of the first bilateral trade agreement on the eve of the anniversary - a "birthday gift" seen as a sweetener from Beijing to appease growing discontent in the city over the sluggish economy and the new law.

The 13-week SARS crisis caused 296 deaths from 1,755 infections, and also wrecked Hong Kong's efforts to revive the economy which has struggled since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

"There is a general feeling of dissatisfaction, ranging from politics to the economy, although people in general have accepted the return to China without resentment," noted Joseph Cheng, a political commentator from City University.

"Hong Kong's malaise is now a political one arising from concerns China's communist regime is gradually taking hold of the city with the legislation of so-called anti-subversion laws."

With chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's popularity at an all-time low following the economic slump and his perceived poor handling of the SARS crisis, more people were calling for a fully-elected government, said Cheng.

Director of Hong Kong Christian Institute, Rose Wu, estimated some 6,000 Christians would turn out for the march.

"It is not just our freedom of religious belief, but our fundamental freedom (that is at stake)," she said. "We will not give up, even if the proposed bill is passed into law. We will fight for amendments."

Hong Kong's outspoken Catholic head, Bishop Joseph Zen, will lead a prayer meeting before the march.

Sophie Zhao, a spokeswoman for the Falun Gong spiritual group, which is banned in mainland China, said some 300 practitioners will join in the march.

"We are against the legislation that will eventually curtail our rights," she said.

United States and Britain have joined international human rights and press groups to condemn the planned laws.