Hong Kong WTO chief attacked for ignoring protests

Original Publication Date: 
17 October, 2005

HONG KONG, (AFP) - Hong Kong's WTO chief, who is organising a key ministerial trade summit here, was under fire for what critics say was his poor handling of a small protest by anti-globalisation activists.

Critics, including local media, warn that trade secretary John Tsang's "hot under the collar" response to a minor altercation was a bad omen for the way Hong Kong was likely to deal with possible full-scale violence at the summit.

A clearly frightened Tsang fled a round-table debate with members of non-government organisations (NGOs) here Sunday after protesters demanded he arrange a meeting with them to discuss their grievances.

His rapid departure via a back door left World Trade Organisation secretary general Pascal Lamy to single-handedly face an angry crowd of banner-carrying activists.

A statement from the Hong Kong People's Alliance for the WTO said Tsang had been ignoring their calls for talks since the southern Chinese city was selected to host the December summit last year.

"The expression of neglect agitated some of the alliance's members," said Elizabeth Tang, convenor of the organsiation, an umbrella group coordinating protests by the 10,000 NGOs and activists expected for the meeting.

"The HKPA believed that any responsible government would be happy to meet its constituents and collect opinion from them," Tang added. "Unfortunately Tsang refused us with the excuse for being 'busy'."

Tsang was unavailable for comment.

Protesters want assurances that the sixth ministerial conference (MC6) here will make provisions to ease the plight of the world's poor.

The five-day meeting is hoped to pave the way for a make-or-break deal on liberalising global trade and using free trade to alleviate poverty.

Tsang said a deal was possible but the sticking point was the United States' and the European Union's refusal to lower agricultural subsidies to their inefficient farmers, something experts say prevents peasants in the developing world from selling their goods overseas.

Organisers fear anti-globalisation protesters may turn the event into a riot similar to that seen during the WTO's summit in Seattle in 1999. The HKPA fears the Hong Kong police are inexperienced in such events and would overreact to trouble.

The success of the summit inside and outside the debating room rests in large part on Tsang's shoulders, as his office is overseeing the summit agenda and security arrangements.

In a stinging commentary piece, however, the Hong Kong Standard newspaper said it "augurs bad for the WTO talks if Tsang ... runs away from a small group of protesters who were merely so badly behaved as to shout their frustration".

"Hong Kong is heading for trouble unless its senior officials can improve their game, maybe even get a game plan," the article, written by veteran journalist Kevin Rafferty said.