SCMP Monday, June 26, 2000

Day of protest sweeps SAR


Home owners, students, professionals and mainlanders seeking right of abode all took to the streets yesterday in a day of protests at government policies.

Government officials put on a brave face, saying the protests were signs of a healthy and transparent society, but critics said social sectors were increasingly fragmented and the situation was made worse by various radical reform policies.

More than 1,000 doctors staged the biggest protest of its kind in a decade - against a revamp of the medical profession's grading structure which they said would waste resources and undermine morale and the quality of service provided to patients.

The group staged an hour-long silent protest at the headquarters of the Hospital Authority in Argyle Street, Kowloon City.

Hours earlier, about 1,300 frontline welfare workers marched from Wan Chai to government headquarters in Central to protest at the new lump-sum financing system for non-governmental organisations.

At about the same time, 300 residents marched along Nathan Road in Yau Ma Tei against the soon-to-be-established Urban Renewal Authority, saying its land resumption power would be too great and its compensation unfair.

And in an unprecedented move, the Liberal Party led more than 2,000 people in Central to highlight negative equity suffered by flat owners and businesses.

In the fifth protest, about 1,200 people, including many mainlanders, demonstrated over the right-of-abode issue, criticising the SAR Government for seeking the mainland's reinterpretation of the Basic Law a year ago. A hardcore group of 60 student and mainland protesters were staying overnight outside the Court of Final Appeal before holding a candlelight vigil in Chater Garden, Central, tonight.

Information Co-ordinator Stephen Lam Sui-lung said Hong Kong was a pluralistic society and people were free to express their opinions. He disagreed that the Government was being too radical in pushing several reforms in a short period of time. But he sidestepped questions on whether the Government would defer the medical reform.

"All reforms are urgently needed," he said. "Certain areas need to be further studied and our colleagues at the Health and Welfare Bureau are looking at them."

The Liberal Party's vice-chairwoman, Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, who led the march in protest at the effects of the property slump, said the protests were giving people the chance to express their grievances.

City University political science professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek said even the middle class was being affected by government reforms. "The reforms are just too quick and too much for the general public to swallow and embrace over a short period of time," he said. "Moreover, some of the officials responsible for the reforms do not understand the problems and issues."

He advised the Government to establish priorities in its reform programmes and in future ensure more members of the public were appointed to advisory bodies to restore dwindling public trust.

The Public Doctors' Association said the new two-tier system would further strain manpower shortages in hospitals and mislead the public into blaming frontline staff in the event of blunders. Salaries for new recruits will be cut to create more posts for specialists and juniors.

"We hope to express our discontent in a rational and calm way," said association president Dr Lai Wing-yiu. Under the reforms launched this month, the current three grades of doctors will be cut to consultants and residents, who will have to be supervised in most medical tasks.

Commenting on the welfare reforms, Deputy Secretary for Health and Welfare Robin Gill yesterday denied non-governmental organisations would receive less funding. He said more than 60 per cent of staff would benefit immediately because they were currently below the mid-point salary benchmark.

The new system calculates funding by reference to the mid-point salary of all staff rather than the actual salaries paid.

Chinese University sociology professor and political commentator Lau Siu-kai said there was growing political discontent on top of economic and social ills. "A lot of people are not satisfied with the Government's ability to rule."