Search Tuesday November 25, 2003

Hong Kong to Beijing: Give us democracy
The ballot speaks
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The people of Hong Kong have spoken again, but is their government and its Beijing overseer listening?

The election Sunday for the territory’s district councils established two facts beyond doubt. First, Hong Kong people enjoy electoral politics. Enthusiasm ran high and the turnout — 44 percent — was remarkable considering that the councils have almost no power, and in any case are stacked with government appointees who can neutralize the elected members. Local government in Hong Kong has become less democratic since the 1997 departure of the colonial administration.

Second, the level of dissatisfaction with the government remains close to that which promoted the half-million-strong protest march on July 1. For that, the government can no longer blame the SARS outbreak or even the outlook for the economy, now rather brighter than for quite some time.

Hong Kong’s major pro-Beijing party suffered grievously not because the electorate is anti-Beijing but because the party is identified with the failures of the Hong Kong administration, which it has supported almost without question.

Dissatisfaction and demand for more democracy are joined in a single thread: the demand of accountability by a bureaucratic administration that is seen to put its own interests and those of Beijing acolytes and a few tycoons before the broader interests of the people.

Events after July 1 showed that the government was willing to offer up a few sacrificial victims in an attempt to mollify public discontent. Three especially tarnished ministers were required to resign.

But the government has yet to demonstrate willingness to change the system to make itself more accountable to the electorate. Indeed, recent events have shown the determination of the political leadership to close ranks not just against those who challenge them directly, but against independent voices that are supposed to provide a degree of check and balance against bureaucratic authoritarianism.

The government has been silent on the two key issues of political reform here. The first is popular election of the chief executive when the post is vacated by Tung Chee-hwa in 2007. Hitherto the post has been filled by an ‘‘election’’ by a group hand-picked by the pro-Beijing camp. The second is commitment to a direct election of the legislature by 2008. Legislative elections next year will see only half the 60 members directly elected, the remainder being chosen by business and other interest groups.

Meanwhile, independent voices have been stilled. The government recently ousted, and endeavored to discredit, the head of the Equal Opportunities Commission, an independently minded woman willing to take on the bureaucracy. It replaced her with a very conservative-minded retired judge — who has since had to resign after being touched by a scandal over acceptance of favors.

An active auditor general, a position that is supposed to provide critical, independent scrutiny of government accounts, was replaced by a modestly qualified bureaucrat. Appointments to the post of ombudsman, supposed to deal with complaints against the bureaucracy, and to the head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, have both been of middle-ranking bureaucrats seen as unlikely to ruffle many feathers among the ranks of their erstwhile colleagues. There is a widespread perception of an administration of political and bureaucratic insiders

There is popular skepticism too about the closer relations with the mainland, which the government claims are helping the economy. For sure, easier access for mainland visitors is bolstering tourism and some enhanced economic and financial cooperation should bring modest gains for trade and services business.

But many regard Tung’s cap-in-hand approach to Beijing as demeaning, and view much-touted cooperation agreements with Shanghai and Shenzhen as meaningless and naïve. The name of the game is competition. Quite reasonably, those cities are set on gaining business at the expense of much wealthier Hong Kong.

Whatever happens to the economy, Hong Kong’s demand for constitutional reform — for more representative, broader-based, less crony-ridden government — will not go away.