Democracy Activists Test New Rulers

HONG KONG -- Up to 10,000 Hong Kong activists marched on Tuesday to demand their new Chinese-picked leaders restore democracy, while Beijing trod softly, pledging never to put troops on the streets in armored cars.

"We want democracy. We want it now," demonstrators chanted on the first day of Hong Kong's rule by China, which underlined its sovereignty by sending in 4,000 People's Liberation Army, or PLA, troops backed by armor.

The protest was the biggest challenge so far to shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa, who took over as chief executive after the British bowed out at midnight on Monday.

Government-run radio said up to 10,000 people joined the protest, which passed off peacefully in a win for all sides.

Authorities could take credit for permitting the action, activists proved they could express themselves peacefully and police showed there was no need for Chinese troops to help control internal dissent.

Earlier, in a grand show of force, 21 armored personnel carriers rolled into an army camp in the heart of Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui shopping belt.

Pro-democracy activists regard the arrival of PLA forces, and particularly armored cars, as a provocative reminder of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of demonstrators in Beijing.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said his Chinese counterpart Qian Qichen "has explicitly confirmed that the defense role of the PLA is solely external, not internal.

"Chinese troops should not be seen in marches or in armored personnel carriers on the streets of Hong Kong," he told reporters after meeting Qian.

Tung reinforced the assurances from Beijing.

"Democracy is the hallmark of a new era for Hong Kong," he said in a speech outlining his economic and social agenda.

While the noisy demonstrators marched through Hong Kong's Central business district, other residents offered a warmer response to embrace by the motherland.

In the semi-rural New Territories, Chinese troops who arrived in lashing rain -- standing stiffly to attention on the backs of open trucks -- were cheered and clapped by thousands of well-wishers.

Smiling onlookers answered the soldiers' stern gazes and stiff waves with garlands, flowers and pennants.

Later, a crowd of about 500 onlookers watched the armored vehicles enter the army base, but no one appeared to be alarmed.

"I'm definitely happy, I've been waiting for this to happen for years. They are here to liberate us from the British," said retiree Mang Kam, 74, waving a Chinese flag.

Cook said he also won assurances from Qian that elections would be held in Hong Kong by next May. The old democratically elected legislature was dissolved at midnight and a new Beijing-picked assembly sworn in. Tung had already named May as the election date.

Elite PLA units crossed the border at three points to garrison the new Special Administrative Region, which has been promised wide autonomy for the next 50 years.

A flotilla of warships churned towards the new naval base at Stonecutters Island. Helicopters roared across the frontier carrying more troops.

Although the military show has drawn expressions of unease from Britain and the United States, Beijing views it as a joyous affirmation of sovereignty after a century and a half of colonial shame.

China's President Jiang Zemin said he wanted Hong Kong "forever vigorous and dynamic" with autonomy and freedoms.

Declaring that Hong Kong must remain "the world's freest and most vibrant economy," Tung unveiled a bold policy agenda for China's latest and richest region.

He pledged action to bring down the astronomical cost of housing, improve educational opportunities at overcrowded schools and take steps to upgrade Hong Kong's technological base.

Most people appeared to have come to terms with their fate as new Chinese citizens, and some even seemed to be revelling in the novelty.

In a burst of retrospective-chic, some shop assistants sported Chairman Mao caps or the red scarves made popular by China's young Red Guards during the radical leftwing Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.