Background Briefing

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The July 1, 2003 protest

Beijing’s move to assert more authority over Hong Kong was triggered in part by the massive protest march of July 1, 2003, the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, and, since then, also a day of protest in Hong Kong. An estimated half-million marchers – roughly one out of every fourteen residents in Hong Kong – took part in the protest march to defend civil liberties and press for democratic reforms, making it the largest such protest since the 1997 handover.

The historic turnout was sparked by widespread concern over the government’s proposed amendments to Hong Kong’s national security laws. The so-called Article 23 proposals, so named for the article of Hong Kong’s Basic Law that deals with new national security legislation, put basic rights protections in Hong Kong at risk. 

The government’s confrontational style during the legislative process was almost as damaging as the substance of its proposals. Rather than listening to local and international critics, or trying to refute criticisms of the bill, the Hong Kong government was too often seen as engaging in the politics of attack, an approach that would later cost the government dearly in terms of public support.

The government’s chief spokesperson on Article 23 was then-Secretary for Security Regina Ip, whose bruising, aggressive style alienated many in Hong Kong. Both she and the Chief Executive were seen as the public face of Article 23, and their approach to selling the legislation to the public was, in the end, seen as counterproductive. According to one local activist, “Regina Ip and Tung created a lot of anger. They were also a recruitment tool, in a way.”5

Because the government was focused on its most vocal critics, which included pro-democratic members of the Legislative Council, local civil society groups, and prominent members of the legal community, the government may have been less aware of the impact of its proposals on Hong Kong’s rank-and-file. In fact, interest in and concern about the government’s proposals was widespread. “I was getting calls from social workers, teachers, the elderly. There was a wide spectrum of the community that was interested,” one activist recalled.6

The organizers of the July 2003 protest march were also helped by the fact that the public was dissatisfied by the government’s inept handling of the SARS crisis, and the economic slowdown brought about by the SARS outbreak. But concern over Article 23 was at the forefront, and this concern, more than any other issue, led to the large turnout on July 1. 

Both the Hong Kong government and the central leadership in Beijing were caught off guard by the size of the demonstration, and, in the days following the July 1 protest, the Hong Kong government was plunged into crisis. Speculation was rife that Chief Executive Tung would be forced to step down, and a small handful of politicians emerged as potential candidates to succeed him.7

Behind the central government’s displeasure over the latest turn of events was the fact that it was taken by surprise by the march. Beijing was given extremely inaccurate information about the extent of local opposition to the government’s Article 23 proposals, and was told that far fewer protestors would turn out for the July 1 march.8 One political analyst told Human Rights Watch, “No one expected that there would be more than 500,000 people on the streets. Many people told China that (the turnout) would be less than 50,000. They were surprised and they thought that Hong Kong was out of control.”9

Ma Lik, head of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), was open about the central government’s chagrin over being taken by surprise by recent events: “The situation was very far from what Beijing had initially expected,” Ma told reporters. “I believe it is shocked and displeased.”10

Within days of the protest march, Beijing, obviously aware that its usual sources of information in Hong Kong had failed, dispatched the first of many envoys – both official and unofficial -- to Hong Kong to assess the political situation. Over the next few months, as many as several hundred individuals were sent to Hong Kong from the mainland, with orders to report back on the current political situation. Many were told to report back what they were told without filter and without analysis, a possible indicator that Beijing was seeking to compensate for perceived flaws in its existing channels of information on Hong Kong.11

Despite the crisis of confidence that the Hong Kong government faced, the central government remained relatively quiet after the protests. In the immediate aftermath of the July protest, and even after the Hong Kong government was forced to formally withdraw its Article 23 proposals in early September, the central government continued to assess the situation and largely kept its own counsel, largely refraining from public comment on the situation in Hong Kong.12

There were even some initial indications that the central government was willing to adopt a favorable view of the protests. Using a word which would soon take on a charged meaning in Hong Kong politics, Liu Yandong, the director of the United Work Front Department, Beijing’s organ for managing the Communist Party in Hong Kong, told a group of pro-Beijing Hong Kong political and business leaders at a meeting in Shenzhen in late August that the demonstrators were “patriotic.”13

Soon after the protest, Beijing came to the conclusion that Hong Kong’s problems stemmed from the sluggish economy. Fix the economy, the argument went, and political passions would cool, and support for Tung’s government and the pro-Beijing political parties would begin to revive.14 This analysis reflected the traditional view of Hong Kong as a money city, one in which political issues were, by and large, the province of economic elites.

The primary vehicle for executing this policy of economic engagement was the so-called Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, or CEPA. Under CEPA, which was drawn up before the protests but not finalized until after July 1, Hong Kong companies are allowed greater access to China, and tariffs on a wide range of Hong Kong goods and services imported into China were eliminated. The central government also significantly eased travel restrictions to Hong Kong, thus increasing tourism revenues for the city. 

As Beijing was formulating its new policy toward Hong Kong, the SAR government was attempting to find a way to salvage its Article 23 proposals. On July 6, Liberal Party head James Tien withdrew his party’s support for the government’s bill. Tien also resigned his seat on the Executive Council, Hong Kong’s executive cabinet. Tien’s switch meant that the government no longer had enough votes in the Legislative Council (LegCo) to pass the bill. Rather than face almost certain defeat, Chief Executive Tung announced in the early morning hours of July 7 that the bill would be delayed. On September 5, the government announced that the bill was withdrawn.

Although Beijing did not react publicly to the announcement of the withdrawal of the Article 23 bill, September 5 was widely seen as the first step in the change in Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong that emerged over the next several months. According to one analyst interviewed by Human Rights Watch:

Around September, the Politburo came to some conclusions about Hong Kong, including how to deal with demands for universal suffrage. Since then, they have taken a more hands-on, proactive approach. They have become more outspoken on Hong Kong issues.15

This outspokenness and more direct intervention did not manifest itself, however, until after the November District Council Elections.

The November elections

The November 23, 2003, District Council elections offered the first opportunity for voters to express their opinion at the ballot box since the July 1 protest. Although the District Councils are not particularly powerful, a district council seat can serve as a possible springboard for a run for the Legislative Council (LegCo).

The District Council elections also offered the first opportunity for Beijing to measure the success of its strategy of increased economic cooperation, and for observers of Hong Kong politics to take the political temperature of the Special Administrative Region. 

By any measure, the November elections were a strong repudiation of the pro-Beijing political parties, of the Tung administration, and, indirectly, of Beijing, which was seen as having major influence over the Tung administration in general and the Article 23 proposals in particular. Pro-democracy candidates dominated the elections, dealing the pro-Beijing parties a serious setback.

The pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) was devastated by the loss, and DAB head Tsang Yok-sing announced that he would resign the party chairmanship the day after the elections.16

The setback suffered by the DAB was a clear sign that Beijing’s economic approach to Hong Kong had not been successful, and, faced with a failed strategy, the central government reverted to the politics of polarization and attack. As one pro-democracy politician observed, Beijing’s money politics failed to get at the reason the people of Hong Kong took to the streets. “They wanted to bribe people of Hong Kong into not asking for democracy,” said Martin Lee, a prominent Democratic Party LegCo member. “But it’s not working.”17

In the eyes of some, there was also a certain amount of payback in Beijing’s new sharp-elbowed approach. “Beijing viewed itself as lenient, and Hong Kong, in their view, was ungrateful,” one Hong Kong watcher noted. “That to them was totally unforgivable.”18

Others predicted that the loss would sour Beijing on democracy: according to several observers, the Basic Law’s ten-year time frame for democratization was based on the notion that, over a ten-year period, Beijing and pro-Beijing parties could win over the people of Hong Kong. The bungled move on Article 23 and the November elections were indisputable indicators that that goal was no longer attainable, at least not by 2008.

In an analysis that would soon seem prescient, both pro-Beijing and pro-democratic figures warned that the election results would change Beijing’s policy on democratization. Shiu Sin-por, the head of a pro-Beijing research group in Hong Kong, noted that the election results would “make Beijing think twice or three times before they have more elections.”19

Emily Lau, the head of the pan-democratic Frontier Alliance, made a similar point: “They will be more reluctant to give Hong Kong more democracy, there’s no doubt about it. Beijing may be scared off by this, but if Beijing sees many Hong Kong people want this, I hope Beijing won’t be so foolish as to rush in and say you can’t have it.”20

At the very least, the November elections demonstrated that the July protests were not driven primarily by economic concerns, and that the people of Hong Kong did want to see progress on political reform. “After the July 1 rally, the aspirations for democracy had not died down,” said one Hong Kong journalist who covered the July protests and the November elections. “When there was an actual opportunity for people to cast their votes, they made it pretty clear what they wanted. After (the November elections), Beijing needed to make its own position clear.”21 Starting in early December 2003, Beijing began to do just that.


[5] Human Rights Watch interview with local Hong Kong activist, July 2004.

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with local Hong Kong activist, July 2004.

[7] CLSA and Civic Exchange, Hong Kong Politics: Uncharted Territory, July 2003, p. 3.

[8] Human Rights Watch interviews, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview, July 2003. To some extent, Beijing can be forgiven for being taken by surprise: even the organizers of the march were surprised by the massive turnout. Before the march, the organizers of the protest had predicted that between 100,000 and 300,000 marchers would take the streets.

[10] “Beijing, Hong Kong Officials Gauge Crisis,” Associated Press, July 12, 2003.

[11] Human Rights Watch interviews, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[12] Human Rights Watch interviews, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[13] John Pomfret, “China Trying a Softer Sell in Hong Kong,” Washington Post, August 28, 2003, p. A18.

[14] Human Rights Watch interviews, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with Hong Kong-based analyst, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[16] Keith Bradsher, “Hong Kong voters snub Beijing again,” International Herald Tribune, November 24, 2003.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Legislative Councilor Martin Lee, July 2004.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[19] Keith Bradsher, “Hong Kong voters snub Beijing again,” International Herald Tribune, November 24, 2004.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

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