Where Democracy Has No Dress Code

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Hong Kong's Chief Executive, Donald Tsang poses for a photo with participants in an event marking the tenth anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to the mainland Chinese government.

The organizers of Hong Kong's annual July 1 pro-democracy march had hoped to strike the right sartorial chord by asking that demonstrators wear white — a symbol, they suggested, of the purity of the city's democratic hopes. It would have made a demonstrative change from the ubiquitous red Hong Kong and Chinese flags as the city marked — with parties, fireworks and a visit from Chinese Premier Hu Jintao — the tenth anniversary of the territory's return to China.

But in this fashionably eclectic city, whose most recognizable government official, Chief Executive Donald Tsang, sports an idiosyncratic bow tie, top-down fashion mandates are something of a risky thing. So it's perhaps unsurprising that only a few of Sunday's demonstrators sported anything near the prescribed white. For the marchers, clad in Che Guevara and Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, skinny jeans and cargo shorts, a consistent look proved difficult.

A consistent message proved just as elusive. Inconsistency has been the norm ever since 500,000 people took to Hong Kong's streets on July 1, 2003 to protest everything from a controversial security bill to the mishandling of the SARS crisis to Tsang's unpopular predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa. It may have started out as a pro-democracy march, but democracy is not necessarily foremost on the minds of the marchers. If you missed the "One Person, One Vote!" placards carried by democracy advocates (helpfully printed in Sunday's edition of Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper), it would have been easy enough to confuse the demonstration with anything from a labor rights march to a municipal zoning dispute. Hundreds of Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers protested against abusive recruitment agencies and called for an increase in the minimum wage. In Victoria Park, beneath a dour-faced statue of the British monarch, Falun Gong demonstrators jostled for space with activists urging an end to political pressure on RTHK, Hong Kong's public broadcaster. As the crowd moved steadily through the streets of Causeway Bay, a popular shopping district, union representatives brushed shoulders with nationalists bearing oversized posters of Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen and bright Taiwan flags. Groups of demonstrators broke up to make way for an oversized wooden float piloted by an elderly driver hawking traditional Chinese medicine for crow's feet.

The march's organizers had sought to prove that Hong Kong's denizens remain hungry for universal suffrage: currently, the Chief Executive and much of the legislature are chosen by small groups of business leaders friendly to Beijing. (Tsang has said the issue of direct elections "will be resolved" during his current term in office, which expires in 2012.) But with the economy booming, it has become harder to make a case against the status quo. Police and organizers quibbled over the number of attendees at the demonstration, placing it somewhere between 20,000 and 70,000, but either way, it was a far cry from the half million who marched in 2003.

"The economy's doing well," says protester Daniel Lee, 18, "but the government still refuses to listen to this: the people want democracy." And yet, between the phalanx of student environmentalists protesting the wasteful use of disposable lunchboxes in public schools and the neatly lined-up group of middle-aged men and women protesting the construction of a fish market in their neighborhood, it was hard to tell what the people really wanted — and whether democracy had anything to do with it.

Yet, this seething mass of clashing clothes and conflicting interests is what Hong Kong democracy now looks like. With the territory's leadership widely castigated over its lack of accountability —for example, ignoring public calls to rein in rapacious property developers and combat environmental degradation, to name just two examples — the July 1 march has become the main vehicle for its citizens to petition for change. "It's our responsibility to be at this protest," says Alfred Man, who's been coming to the annual march for years. "We need to have a say in who our leaders are."

As Hong Kong enters its second decade under Chinese rule, how the territory deals with these minor crises — from the demolition of local markets to make way for mega-malls to the increasing influx of refugees from Africa and Asia — is as important as how it grapples with the biggest questions of democratic change. While its dress code-conscious organizers may have wanted a more coherent demonstration, the laundry list of causes driving Sunday's protest is perhaps a better indicator of Hong Kong's hopes and frustrations than they realize. "One Person, One Vote" is only the beginning.