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Hong Kong delivers a mixed verdict

Returned to Chinese control in 1997, few expected that the city of Hong Kong - whose citizens never tire of pointing out how they are pragmatic business people first, idealists second - would be the cause of so much trouble for Beijing.

Last Modified: 14 Sep 2004 17:25 GMT
Surveys say 80% of Hong Kong's population want full democracy

Returned to Chinese control in 1997, few expected that the city of Hong Kong - whose citizens never tire of pointing out how they are pragmatic business people first, idealists second - would be the cause of so much trouble for Beijing.

Casting their ballots on Sunday, Hong Kong's seven million citizens voted for one half of their 60-member legislative chamber (the other half being made up of functional constituencies, that is candidates elected from within different industries).

Till the last day in this gambling-mad city, all bets were on Beijing's public enemy number one, the Democratic Party. But while the party garnered three more seats on Sunday than the last polls, the gains were less than expected.

Still, what should have been a fairytale ending as the Chinese family was finally reunited (except for that upstart youngest son, Taiwan), resulted in an electorate being presented with an apparent black-or-white choice: Vote for democracy and against Beijing, or for Beijing and against democracy.

Single-topic race

While the reality actually comes in several shades of grey, both local and international media preferred to paint this battle in absolutist terms.

Rose Wu is not a happy woman. As director of the Hong Kong Christian Institute, she had spent the past few months trying to drum up interest in what she believed ought to have been key issues for Sunday's election.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is
now seen as a liability for Beijing

To Rose, an election that should have focused on wider issues - such as welfare, crime and labour rights - was dominated by a single topic: Democracy.

On the one side we had the likes of Martin Lee and his Democratic Party, the paladin knight of the western world and free thinkers everywhere, while on the other we had the Beijing-funded stooges whose long-winded party names reek of autocracy.

Or perhaps we had a group of "destructive forces" that are profiteering off the back of a "fear China" ticket, while patriotic parties loyal to the greater good try to instil some much needed order.

"The political climate," said one long-term resident, "has divided Hong Kong to an extent not seen since 1989 and Tiananmen Square."

Political awakening

Back pedal to early last year and the city was coming to terms with a new disease, SARS, and a belief that their government was more concerned in not embarrassing the mainland, who had yet to admit to the outbreak, than saving lives.

Add to that a bungled attempt to pass a controversial bill that appeared to hinder personal freedoms, and the result was half a million people taking to the streets.

"We need to face realities because whether we like it or not, Beijing has the final say over constitutional reform"

Choy So Yuk, Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong

Now, throw in a decision made earlier this year by the central government not to allow Hong Kong to directly elect its own chief executive, or the remaining half of the Legislative Council until 2012 at the earliest, a decision that pro-Beijing parties say was perfectly legitimate, but one which their critics claim contravened the Basic Law agreement signed between the UK and China, as well as negated the wishes of the Hong Kong people.

Also include an apparent "dirty tricks" campaign that saw an outspoken radio commentators threatened and the apartment of a Democratic candidate burgled, and a by now well-developed sense that the appointed chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, spends a little too much time with his tycoon friends, and once again just under half a million took to the streets in protest.

It all made for a colourful election.

Tung's hot seat

"Whatever people may want, they can all agree on one thing: the Tung administration is at fault," said Francis Moriarty, a foreign journalist based in Hong Kong.

Seen as emblematic for all the city's ills, there are few people these days that would openly admit to being a Tung fan. Even his own side appears to be shunning him.

Democratic icon Martin Lee says
Beijing is fed wrong information

Reportedly, when visiting Beijing no one wants to speak with him. And speaking to Aljazeera.net, one pro-Beijing politician called him a "useless fool".

Chosen by business interests and confirmed by Beijing, his lack of direct accountability to Hong Kong has been one of the central factors behind the calls for full democracy.

"From surveys, 70-80% of people support full democracy," Joseph Cheng of City University of Hong Kong told Aljazeera.net.

Himself a contributor to the democratic cause, Cheng believes that by not allowing full democracy in Hong Kong, Beijing will pay a high price.

"Without democracy, Hongkongers will only feel more alienated from Beijing," he says.

"Without democracy, Taiwan will only seek to discredit Beijing and the whole 'one country, two systems' policy. Without democracy, Beijing will receive adverse media attention, which will impact negatively on the nation's leaders."

Face realities

No, no, no, said Choy So Yuk, to Cheng's combination of carrots and sticks. She spent the last week out on the streets, mouth glued to a megaphone, canvassing for the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), a pro-Beijing group (a title she has no problems with) that made stunning gains in Sunday's election.

Joseph Chen: China will pay high
price for blocking full democracy

"The Democratic Party will say anything to get votes. They get people to fear and hate China," Choy said with undisguised contempt.

"We need to face realities because whether we like it or not, Beijing has the final say over constitutional reform. We have Western governments telling us what to do," she told Aljazeera.net.

"We have Martin Lee of the Democrats going to Washington to complain to Congress about his own country. Don't you think China knows what is best for Hong Kong?"

Jostling for clout

"China wants control," said professor Cheng. "Their mindset is guided by Marxist-Leninist thought. They cannot afford to do something where they will not have absolute control." 

Rose Wu said welfare, crime and
labour rights were glossed over

Although under the Basic Law Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a "high degree of autonomy" until 2047, it is no secret where parties such as the DAB get much of their funding from.

The problem is that when talking about an issue as potent as full democracy in Hong Kong, there is no universal "China". Instead there are special-interest groups and political factions all jostling for positions of influence.

So when people see the case of the three prominent radio journalists who say they received calls threatening their families, people don't necessarily look to some black hand in Beijing, but to local interests, maybe triads, who are second-guessing a move that could win them favours with higher powers.

Domino effect?

"I'm not convinced Hu [Jintao] and Wen [Jiabao] even know about the reality of things. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a lot of misinformation given to Beijing and they now think we are moving towards independence," Democratic Party candidate Martin Lee told Aljazeera.net.

Pro-Beijing politician Choy says
China knows what is best

Fear of a 'domino effect' among other Chinese cities or regions whose citizens might also turn round and demand fully elected local governments, or concerns over how Taiwan will view Hong Kong's wayward behaviour, have also been cited as a possible rationale behind Beijing's thinking.

However, Choy of the DAB said she is confident that Beijing is committed to a 2012 timetable for full elections, provided certain criteria were met.

According to her, "If Beijing is satisfied the person elected would be acceptable to them, then they will allow it. At the end of the day, it depends on whether the Hong Kong people are mature enough to judge what kind of person is in Hong Kong's best interest."

Swing voters

Choy added, "At the moment, no matter how competent the candidate would be for the position of Chief Executive, if they were seen as 'pro-Beijing', they would lose. This labelling and attitude is immaturity."

Not that such subjective qualification will bring comfort to the Democrats, many of whom are not allowed to travel on the mainland.

What will happen next is not yet clear, but in Beijing, they must be hoping that now that the elections are over, Hong Kong will get back to business as usual.

Source:
Aljazeera
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