Protests as Peking `consults' colony

China's first attempt at widespread consultations on selecting Hong Kong's leadership after the end of British rule was given a cool reception by demonstrators in the colony yesterday. Protesters held up birdcages to symbolise the constraints on the consultation exercise.

Earlier, officials ejected two representatives of the Federation of Hong Kong Students from the hotel where the discussions were taking place. One, Sung Chi Tak, tried to protest about the abolition of the legislature. His colleague, Ivy Chan, distributed leaflets. "We were invited to attend but they didn't want to hear what we wanted to say," said Ms Chan. Later, 1,000 demonstrators marched to the hotel.

China had already signalled the limits to the consultation exercise after banning the main teachers' organisation, one of the biggest professional organisations in the territory, from taking part. The ban was imposed because the teachers planned to send two representatives who are leaders of the colony's democracy movement and have publicly criticised China's plan to abolish the legislature.

The only dissenting voice allowed to make its views known was the Bar Association. Its chairwoman, Gladys Li, was given about three minutes to explain why lawyers thought China was acting beyond the law in shutting down the legislature.

This small gesture of open- mindedness was greeted with a banner headline in the South China Morning Post newspaper which proclaimed: "Voices of dissent get a hearing"; a leading article congratulated China on its flexibility.

The Post was not alone in taking this view, a reflection of just how low expectations are of China listening to those who do not toe the party line. All opinion polls show overwhelming opposition to China's plans for abolishing the legislature, and reflect little public confidence in the Preparatory Committee of Hong Kong and Chinese members who are making the key decisions about the establishment of the new government which takes office next year.

Elizabeth Wong, the former head of the government's health and social welfare department, who is now a legislator, said yesterday: "I just hope they [China] leave us alone, but it's a small hope." She joined the demonstration because she was worried about the way China seemed to be getting its new administration "off on the wrong foot".

Chinese officials insist they are prepared to listen to all points of view. After the students were thrown out of yesterday's consultations, Chen Zuo-er, a high-ranking official, said that if the students had presented their views in a proper manner they would have been given a hearing. He denied that China was willing to listen only to those who agreed with its policies.

The consultation exercise has been headed by Lu Ping, China's most senior official dealing with Hong Kong affairs, who is in the territory on one of his rare visits. Mr Lu is viewed as a moderate by the Hong Kong government.

Despite a reluctance to listen to local people who hold opposing views, Chinese officials indicated that they might be prepared to consult foreign businessmen in the territory through overseas chambers of commerce. Peking is anxious to maintain Hong Kong as an international business centre.