HONG KONGThe biggest vote winners - pro-democracy forces - in Hong Kong's Legislative
Council elections on Sunday are destined to lose. Even if they fall far short of
their expectations, the democrats will lead the popular vote. But only half the
60 seats are directly elected by full suffrage, the rest being decided by small
numbers of mostly pro-government voters in so-called "functional
Another reason is that the better the
democrats do, the more determined the government and its masters in Beijing may
be to thwart, by fair means or foul, the popular will. Confronted by the
persistence of pro-democracy sentiment, as evidenced by rallies and opinion
polls, Beijing has been showing the true colors of its one-party authoritarian
It is less and less interested in the
"One Country Two Systems" formula. It no longer needs Hong Kong as major conduit
for foreign investment, and it realizes that the formula is not attractive to
Taiwan. A hard line on Hong Kong is also favored by former President Jiang
Zemin, and is an issue between him and his successor.
The fair means have included government
publication of some rosy-looking economic figures and a visit by Chinese Olympic
medal winners to Hong Kong aimed to associate the local administration with
Foul means are already in evidence in the
run-up to the polls, with pro-Beijing forces and their media outlets smearing
the democrats with assorted allegations of sexual shenanigans, misuse of funds,
CIA financing and lack of patriotism. The sexual and financial careers of some
progovernment candidates are murkier, but the resources of the state have not
been put to exposing them.
Smear tactics were not unexpected. But
they are an illustration of how Hong Kong is being absorbed, drip by drip, into
the mainland system. Likewise, the growing relationship between favored business
groups and the administration is economically damaging but politically
advantageous to the government, as well as being in line with mainland
For now, the smear tactics are seen as
likely to reduce voter turnout. So too may be a complex system of allocating
seats in multimember constituencies, a system which few people understand but
which will ensure that pro-government candidates will pick up plenty of seats.
There is also a not-unjustified sense
that the majority cannot win, and that anyway the Legislative Council has become
increasingly marginalized since 1997 as the executive-led government has sought
to bypass it wherever possible.
Although the main pro-Beijing party, the
Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, purports to believe in full
direct elections in the future, its leading lights have a long history of
subservience to the party line, dating back to the Cultural Revolution. It has a
more recent record of serving certain business interests at the expense of the
masses it purports to represent.
Meanwhile, the democratic camp is
vulnerable to the accusation that its policies on issues other than the
Constitution and autonomy from Beijing are either imprecise or aimed more at
above-average earners in a society with huge income differentials. It also
suffers from divisions.
The political reality is that no less
than 11 of the 60 seats in the legislature are uncontested, the result
pre-cooked by tiny electorates. In some, the electors are corporate bodies which
choose members who contribute little to the debate but vote with the government.
Only 5 percent of the voters are
qualified to vote in the 30 "functional" constituencies, and most of these are
concentrated in a few professions - teachers, health personnel - with records of
returning prodemocracy candidates.
This squalid system is a legacy of the
colonial era. But ever since the signing of the Chinese-British Joint
Declaration 20 years ago, Beijing has been the main barrier to democratization.
Since 1997 it has enjoyed the unstinting support of a small business elite
around the bumbling chief executiv,Tung Chee-hwa, whom it keeps in power for its
Still, this election has an important
symbolic role, pitting advocates of democracy and autonomy against those who put
Chinese patriotism and the merits of rapid integration with the mainland before
Hong Kong identity and internationalism.
There is a long way to travel to good
governance as well as to democracy. But this quasi-election might just be a