Published on Monday, December 12, 2005 by the Guardian / UK
Hong Kong on High Alert as Thousands of Protesters Fly In
by Jonathan Watts
|Hong Kong was braced yesterday for its biggest security operation since the handover from British rule in 1997 as thousands of international protesters began flying in to try to derail the World Trade Organisation summit later this week.
To prevent a repeat of the violence that disrupted the last two summits in Seattle and Cancún, 9,000 police have been drafted in to man the barricades around the harbourside convention centre, where the talks will take place, and patrol shopping and financial districts, which are considered potential targets for anti-globalisation radicals.
In Wan Chai, the entertainment district closest to the venue, manhole covers have been welded into place so they cannot be used as missiles and overhead walkways have been covered in wire mesh so nothing can be thrown on to the streets. Hospitals are on standby and all leave has been cancelled. Prison inmates have been relocated so that police have the space to detain large numbers of people.
Hopes are scarcely more optimistic for the action inside the vast convention centre, used for the 1997 handover, where 6,000 delegates will gather tomorrow to thrash out the global trade disputes that have gridlocked the latest WTO round. Few expect anything more than incremental progress; at worst, some fear a repeat of the deadlock that undermined the last summit at Cancún in 2003.
The first demonstration of the week passed off peacefully yesterday, a colourful, if noisy, march by more than 2,000 people. But, to the concern of free-speech campaigners, immigration officials are said to have a blacklist of known activists, who will be denied entry into the territory.
Korean farmers, who have been in the frontline of previous WTO protests, say the authorities put pressure on hotels to refuse them rooms, but more than 1,000 are expected to fly in today. They say the liberalisation of the rice market has driven several farmers to suicide, including Lee Kyung-hae, who killed himself at the height of the demonstration in Cancún.
"We want to protest peacefully," said Seo Pil-Sang of the Korean Agricultural Federation Trade Union. "But we are desperate. Lee died in Cancún. And unless the WTO listens to the voice of Korean farmers, I'm worried that someone else may kill themselves."
Access will be limited. Although 2,000 accredited non-governmental organisations will be allowed inside the hall, most protesters will be restricted to a nearby "demonstration zone".
"I don't think there'll be trouble like in Seattle in Cancún," said Helena Kwong, a marshall. "Hong Kong people are peaceful. We are against unfair trade, but we are not in favour of violence."
In the past three years, hundreds of thousands of local people have taken to the streets to campaign for democracy, but the demonstrations have all passed peacefully. Hong Kong also has more reason than most to be thankful for global trade, which has transformed it into one of the most prosperous cities in the world. Police say the risk will come later and from outside: from European and US anarchist groups and Asian farmers' organisations.
Some local businesses are taking no chances. Two nearby banks and several outlets of international retailers plan to close during the summit. At an Audi showroom close to the venue, sales executive Kenneth Chui said: "We are worried about the safety of our staff. We will board up our windows for at least the opening day. Then, we'll see what the situation is like."
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