It's the odd political bird who decides to come in for a landing when her career is soaring. But 44-year-old Legislative Councilor Christine Loh has decided she can do more outside the musty corridors of what passes for political power in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco). She is calling a halt to her electoral career when her current term ends on June 30, three years after the British turned over the city to China. Hong Kong's politics are trapped in a colonial time warp, Loh says, and "there isn't even a timetable for discussing how it could change."
Far from stepping back from political activism, Loh is taking her championing of environmental causes and social issues directly to the people. She's founded Civic Exchange, a new group that will double as an independent research and advocacy center and an online bureau to help citizens use the Internet more effectively to influence government policy. "It's my new life," says Loh, the daughter of a Shanghai cotton merchant who was sent to boarding school in Britain at age 15. She returned to Hong Kong eight years later, in 1979, armed with a law degree from the University of Hull, and then spent 12 years as a commodities trader. Involvement with a young group of pro-democracy activists prompted then-British Governor Chris Patten to appoint her to Legco in 1992.
Loh's decision to step down was termed a "slap in the face" for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa by the influential South China Morning Post. It also sparked discussion about political reform, which Tung has tried to avoid.
Loh is leaving with an impressive trail of environmental victories. Her longstanding fight against land reclamation, which threatened to significantly encroach upon Hong Kong's magnificent harbor, has forced the government to halt future landfill projects while it rethinks its strategy. Her efforts are credited with reducing land reclamation by about 400 hectares--an area roughly equivalent to New York's Central Park.
A childhood asthmatic whose throat becomes raw during smog alerts, Loh has pushed hard for cleaner air. Early this year, she got the government to crack down harder on filling stations selling smuggled diesel fuel and to accelerate plans to convert diesel-guzzling taxis to LPG power. After record air pollution blanketed Hong Kong in March, Loh marshaled supporters, nearly 2,000 of whom receive her weekly e-mail report. They bombarded government officials with complaints and suggestions for action. She also got support from the foreign business community. In response, the government accelerated testing of the ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel that Loh has long championed as a way to cut down on fumes from belching trucks and minibuses.
That quick public support was what helped prompt Loh's decision to quit Legco. Who needs what she calls the "stagnant water" of Legco when the Internet opens new horizons for political change? Instead, Loh will work without a salary at Civic Exchange. Hers is the voice of a new generation in Hong Kong. Her supporters hope it will remain strong.