Protesters urge Peking to deliver

Hong Kong: As the final countdown to Chinese rule begins, the colony is unclear about its future

Maybe the unseen hand which controls the weather was saying all that needed to be said about the colony's future yesterday, the day marking the start of the 365-day countdown to the end of British rule.

One moment, there were brilliant clear skies. The next moment - ominous black clouds and downpours.

In the centre of Hong Kong, there were equally confused versions of the future depicted in rallies held by Peking's supporters on the one hand, and the Democratic Party, which is the largest and most vocal opponent of Chinese plans for the new Hong Kong, on the other.

For the pro-Peking event, 400 people were bussed in wearing identical yellow T-shirts and orange sun shields. They were orderly, and responded well to instructions from the platform.

The Democrats, who mustered a bigger crowd, were less Identikit, and were in a more belligerent mood. A group of 100 people conducted an all- night vigil to protest against China's plans for dismembering the legislature and replacing it with a non-elected body, pending the organisation of fresh elections. This will overturn the current system, which approximates to universal suffrage.

"We are ordinary people," said Tsang Yuk Shing, the leader of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), which organised the pro- China rally. He said that ordinary people were seeking pragmatic solutions to the challenges of the new era. To prove the point, a succession of "ordinary people" were brought up to the platform to say what they were hoping for. A teacher said he would take a course to study for a new career, a white-collar worker said he would try to start his own business, and a small girl demonstrated how she was learning the language of the new rulers by counting from one to 10 in Mandarin.

Cheng Kai Nam, the DAB's General-Secretary, said there was too much preoccupation with the theory of what will happen. Hong Kong people should do something about the future, not just sit here shouting, he said.

"If everyone says it will be hopeless, it will be hopeless, it's a self- fulfilling prophecy."

The Democrats believe that there is no need to prophesy about the future: "We see [Peking's] puppets ruling Hong Kong with a high degree of control," said the Democrats' leader, Martin Lee, yesterday. However, he believed that "the fire of democracy has been lit and it cannot be quenched by an iron fist."

The former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, is reportedly planning to stay in Hong Kong for several days after 1 July 1997 - in other words, for the first days of Chinese rule.

Meanwhile, in a rare moment of agreement, both Taiwan and China issued similar statements yesterday welcoming the end of the colonial era in Hong Kong. As the People's Daily in Peking put it: "The people of China have stood up and will finally wash away a century of shame."

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