Liberal champion launches HK party

Hong Kong's well-known liberal legislator, Christine Loh, yesterday presided over the formation of a new party, the Citizens' Party.

Miss Loh spoke of the party "competing on better policies". "Basically, we're going to bang on quality," she said. And, in the best traditions of marketing managers everywhere, she insisted that "the market is not saturated for politics in Hong Kong".

Legal political parties are a relatively new phenomenon in Hong Kong. Less than a dozen have been formed in the past half decade, few quite as modestly as the Citizens' Party, with just 14 members and one legislator, Miss Loh, who will be kicked out of office along with her colleagues when China takes over on 1 July.

Christine Loh is among the more outstanding of Hong Kong's new politicians. As matters stand, they have no prospect of gaining political power because the government will remain under the firm control of the executive. Moreover, those in the liberal camp may well face considerable problems from the incoming regime which is deeply suspicious of opposition politics and appears not to understand the concept of an opposition.

However, Miss Loh remains an optimist. She believes that there is everything to play for in the battle of ideas.

As a legislator, she has established a reputation as a battler for human rights and environmental causes. A lawyer by training, headed for a highly- lucrative career in the private sector, Miss Loh has opted instead for what may become the political wilderness of opposition, facing local media hostility and little prospect of influencing the government.

The parties which matter these days are those which support Peking, or are quickly edging in that direction. Their problem is a consistent failure to gain popular support. China's rival legislature is now working out plans to change the electoral system. Critics, including Chris Patten, the Governor, say the aim is to rig the polls to help these parties win.

The pro-Peking parties are busy reassessing their role now they are poised to become the closest thing Hong Kong has to government parties. Two of the less successful ones are planning a merger, while the largest of the pro-Peking parties is rewriting its platform. It is wrestling with the problem of reconciling its support for trade unions with the views of a government dominated by business leaders.

The democratic camp appears to be further divided by the creation of the Citizens' Party, but Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong's largest, is sanguine.

Appearing at yesterday's launch celebrations for the Citizens' Party, he said: "The democratic camp has always been larger than the Democratic Party." He added: "I see a lot of common ground and we certainly will co-operate."