Protesters March as WTO Session Opens

Hong Kong police clash with protesters during a demonstration against the World Trade Organization on Tuesday in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong police clash with protesters during a demonstration against the World Trade Organization on Tuesday in Hong Kong. (Guang Niu - Getty Images)
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

HONG KONG, Dec. 14 -- Thousands of demonstrators from more than a dozen countries marched through Hong Kong on Tuesday, some scuffling with police and others diving into the city's harbor in protest, as a World Trade Organization meeting opened with wealthy and developing nations deadlocked in talks over a global trade accord.

Several dozen protesters, most of them South Korean farmers angered by proposals to lower agricultural tariffs they said protect their livelihoods, threw eggs and plastic bottles at police restricting access to the meeting site, then struck them with bamboo sticks in a failed attempt to break through.

About a hundred other Korean activists jumped into the cold waters of Victoria Harbor wearing life preservers and tried to swim to the convention center but were cut off by police patrol boats. Several activists were taken to hospitals and one was reported in serious condition.

But on the opening day of the WTO's biennial ministerial meeting, meant to lay the groundwork for a global treaty by the end of 2006 that would cut trade barriers, police prevented the kind of violence that disrupted the 1999 meeting in Seattle and the 2003 event in Cancun, Mexico.

About 4,500 demonstrators stayed on a route designated by police and peacefully protested trade accords they say benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Beating drums, waving colorful banners and carrying mock coffins, they chanted, "Down, down, WTO!" and "U.S. imperialists, number one terrorists!"

Meanwhile, trade delegations from 149 member countries began a six-day session still at odds over trade in agriculture, the main dispute that has held up talks for months. The impasse has already led negotiators to lower expectations for the meeting's outcome. Brazil and many other developing countries place most of the blame with the European Union for proposing only minimal measures to open its markets to their beef, poultry, dairy products and other agricultural goods. The E.U. accuses developing nations of failing to offer cuts in their barriers to services and manufactured goods.

Pascal Lamy, director-general of the WTO, urged delegates to continue working toward a wide-ranging trade deal that could lift the global economy. "We must not focus on ourselves. We must focus on our children, and our grandchildren," he said.

The meeting took place under high security in a glistening convention center that extends into the harbor. Police have sealed off the area around the building with water-filled plastic barriers and metal fencing, and patrol boats are positioned in the surrounding waters. A helicopter buzzed back and forth.

Hong Kong authorities have also prevented individuals considered agitators from entering the city, determined to avoid the disorder that marred past WTO meetings. In Seattle, more than 600 people were arrested during battles between police and demonstrators. In Cancun, a South Korean peasant activist committed suicide in public and mass protests contributed to the collapse of the trade talks.

Many protesters in Hong Kong said they hoped their presence would pressure negotiators to produce a fairer deal for poor nations, by making rich countries' markets more open to goods from the developing world. But the largest and perhaps most aggressive contingent of demonstrators, hailing from South Korea, have a different agenda. They fervently oppose opening their relatively prosperous nation to foreign farm products. Some 1,500 South Korean farmers, students and other activists are here, and some have vowed to halt the meeting.

"We are warning the Hong Kong authorities. We won't let you hinder our peaceful demonstration plan," said Park Min Woong, secretary-general of the Korean Peasants League. "If you block us, we'll take other measures to achieve our goals."

In a confrontation a few blocks from the meeting place, police used pepper spray on demonstrators, including Hong Kong legislator and democracy activist , known locally as "Longhair."

"What we did was just symbolic and the police were too nervous," Leung said. "Some South Korean protesters and I were trying to break the lines at the designated protest area, and the police used the pepper spray immediately."

In the absence of agreement on farm trade, negotiators are intent on producing measures to benefit developing countries. Under one proposal likely to win approval, rich countries including the United States and Japan would pledge to give duty-free, quota-free access to their markets for most products from about 50 very poor nations, mostly in Africa. The E.U. already has such a program.

Sensitive to the demands of the U.S. textile industry, the Bush administration is reluctant to include clothing and fabric in such an arrangement, and the Japanese government, which protects its shoe industry, is balking at including footwear. But U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman has said that he hopes to reach agreement on the issue.

The rich countries are also significantly increasing their "aid for trade" -- loans and grants that they give to developing countries to fund roads and other trade-related infrastructure. Portman announced Wednesday morning that the United States would increase its aid-for-trade spending to $2.7 billion by 2010, up from $1.3 billion in 2005, subject to congressional approval. That move follows similar announcements by the E.U. and Japan.

But such measures are no substitute for a broader agreement to lower trade barriers, many participants in the talks said. "Negotiators need to keep the focus on the biggest issues that are clogging up the works," Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a written statement from Washington. "At the top of this list is market access for agriculture."

Staff writer Paul Blustein contributed to this report from Washington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company