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Mainland petitioners relish HK''s freedom of speech

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Mainland petitioners relish HK''s freedom of speech
Shunned protesters cross border to air pent-up grievances
http://hk.myblog.yahoo.com/lwmlung/article?mid=1388

By Kelly Chan
2009-05-02
South China Morning Post

A tram ride to The Peak and a stopover at Repulse Bay beach, hitting the malls for designer goods before settling in at a Starbucks in Causeway Bay for some people-watching. Hundreds of thousands of mainlanders come to Hong Kong every year for shopping and sightseeing. But an increasing number of visitors are making the journey over the border to get something tour operators will never advertise in their brochures - freedom of speech.

The visitors belong to the vast army of petitioners on the mainland - the migrants who have lost their jobs, villagers forced off their land by officials, parents with children deformed by toxic pollution. They usually take their grievances to Beijing in the hope of directly petitioning state leaders. Instead they are regularly rounded up by police, detained and then sent back home. The mainland media shuns their stories and so their grievances go unheard.

Now a small but growing number of petitioners are journeying to Hong Kong, hopeful that in an environment where freedom of expression is guaranteed, police are bound by laws and the media can report without government interference, they can draw attention to their causes.

In December, 30 Shanghai petitioners staged a protest outside the central government''s liaison office over the forced demolition of their homes to make way for the Shanghai government''s redevelopment plan. The success spread by word of mouth among petitioners, and several similar "petition tours" arrived in Hong Kong in the months that followed.

"Most of them had already gone to Beijing before for petition," said James Lung Wai-man 龍緯汶, the chairman of the Southern Democratic Alliance 南方民主同盟. The Shanghai petition protest was one of the 12 such events his alliance handled last year, twice as many as the year before.

"But they believe only in Hong Kong can they enjoy freedom of speech and receive media attention. Sometimes they may even catch the interest of the international media." He said that many mainland petitioners were at first taken aback when Hong Kong police officers sent to monitor their activities offered them stools and water. They were even more surprised they were allowed to talk to reporters directly in front of police officers and nobody was beaten.

Even though most of their grievances went unaddressed, their experience in Hong Kong helped many of them to relieve pent-up anger, and they went back home feeling better, Mr Lung said.

The mainland government is not growing any more tolerant of them, however. Beijing has been stepping up public security, first during the Olympic Games, when the capital designated "protest parks" but then refused to let anyone use them; and now as the nation counts down to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People''s Republic in October.

In March, Peking University professor Sun Dongdong, a psychiatrist and consultant to the Ministry of Health, was quoted as saying in an interview that 99 per cent of the mainland''s "professional" petitioners were paranoid and mentally disturbed. This sparked a protest last month by nearly 300 people who gathered in front of the university gates and held up signs for about three hours in the morning.

Xu Zhiyong, a law lecturer at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, said the provincial governments had tried everything to stop these petitioners from going to the state petition bureau in Beijing.

"I have heard that petitioners could be jailed between one and 60 days. Some have been badly beaten," he said.

Coming to Hong Kong to protest can carry a risk for mainlanders. An 80-year-old Shanghai grandmother said she had come back to Hong Kong twice just for petitioning after her first try - eventually the mainland authorities became suspicious of her frequent travel to Hong Kong and locked her up for 14 days.

Nevertheless, many choose to take the risk and come to Hong Kong to protest, Mr Lung said.

"They understand a petition in Hong Kong will not help them get justice. They just want to have a chance to speak out," he said. "A Shanghai woman I met only felt safe to tell her story here, which happened about 10 years ago."

One petitioner from Heilongjiang said he came to Hong Kong after being told by a friend. "I come here not for shopping. I just want to talk to you guys, and I have called four newspapers already this morning. They are much more willing to listen to me than those on the mainland."

Mr Lung expected more petitioners would come during the National Day holiday in October and East Asian Games in December as it would be easier to get media exposure. But he also worried that the mainland authorities would tighten visa procedures to prevent "troublemakers" from going to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong political commentator Poon Siu-to said the trend of mainlanders petitioning in Hong Kong was a by-product of the individual visit scheme introduced in 2003, which provided them one more choice for raising issues.

"Although a report published by the Hong Kong media will not solve the matter, they believe it will embarrass the central government as if a family scandal has been made public," he said.

"And that the public concern will create pressure to force the higher-level officials to do something to avoid a bigger scandal."

Mr Poon estimated that 70 per cent of petitions were related to the requisition of land for urban development, with local officials profiting at the expense of farmers.

He said such cases should be dealt with by the courts, with restrictions placed on the powers of officials and greater freedom given to the mainland media to expose misdeeds. Dr Xu said the problem could only be solved when the mainland truly embraced democracy.

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