Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang's firm stance in the face of a massive protest march on Sunday has set the scene for a showdown with pro-democracy legislators over an unpopular election reform package, analysts said yesterday.
They said the protesters, numbered at a quarter of a million by organizers and 63,000 by police, sent a clear message to Tsang and his Communist Party bosses in Beijing about the desire for democracy in Hong Kong.
"This is the clearest voice ever heard from so big a crowd in the history of Hong Kong," said Joseph Chan, associate professor of Politics and Public Administration at Hong Kong University.
Tsang's response to the protests, which stretched for several miles through the city, was to dig in behind electoral reforms he is trying to convince the city's legislature to pass this month.
No timetable offered
He repeated previous comments that a timetable for universal suffrage - the key demand of the protesters - would not accompany the reforms.
"The confrontation will intensify," said Timothy Wong, a politics analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "The speech last night did not pacify public discontent at all."
Sunday's protest attracted significantly less than the 500,000 people who marched on July 1, 2003, contributing to the downfall of previous leader Tung Chee-hwa.
But the latest march was more meaningful, analysts said, because it focused on one issue alone.
In 2003, marchers were upset about the territory's poorly performing economy, the government's response to SARS and an anti-subversion law that Tung was trying to force through the legislature. Many also marched simply in favor of democracy.
Sunday's march was also marked by the presence of Anson Chan, Tung's powerful head of the civil service for four years after he took over from British governor Chris Patten in 1997.
Joining a pro-democracy march for the first time, Chan told reporters: "I just feel there are moments in one's life when you have to stand up and be counted."
Sunday's turnout emboldened democratic lawmakers, who have enough votes in the Legislative Council to kill the electoral reform package, which would expand the number of people who select the Chief Executive to 1,600 from 800 and add 10 seats to the 60-member legislature.
The 25-member bloc of democrats in the legislature is more likely to stick together now, some analysts said.
Tsang said he would seek to "perfect" the package, but he stressed there was little scope for change and ruled out including a timetable for universal suffrage.
Searching for middle ground
The clock is now ticking for the two to find a middle ground before December 21, when Tsang wants the legislature to pass the package.
"It is not necessarily a collision course," said Cheung Chor-yung, a senior lecturer in social studies, at the City University of Hong Kong. "It all depends on whether both parties now are willing to engage each other in some give-and-take."
Hong Kong University's Chan said: "Both sides, I think, should do something to narrow the gap between the two, and I think the initiative first of all should be taken by the government."
Ma Lik, head of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, also said the onus was on the government.
"It is a test for the local and the central governments; a test of their political wisdom," he said.
Without consensus, the democrats could axe the reform package, damaging Tsang's reputation, analysts said.