Hong Kong Tastes Democracy Before the Dragon Bites

THE candidate trots down the dank concrete corridor pausing every few yards to shake hands through the metal gratings that guard each door. There are 16 stories in this apartment building, so he has to move quickly.

''Hello, I'm Yeung Sum, your legislative councilor. I'm running for a four-year term in the Sept. 17 election,'' he says. His young aides, wearing vests with the green colors of the Democratic Party, hand out leaflets and take down the phone numbers of potential supporters.

Hong Kong, an island of about 6 million people, is in the middle of the most democratic general election of its history. For the first time, every one of the 60 members of the Legislative Council - known here as Legco - will be elected. It will also be the last election of its kind, since China has promised to change the system after the territory reverts to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

For 150 years, Hong Kong's British governors never worried about losing a vote in Legco, since they appointed most of its members.

The first truly democratic elections took place only in 1991, when Mr. Yeung won his seat in a landslide of democratic forces. Only 18 seats were contested, however.

Since that election, the body has matured into a genuine parliament. Only two months ago, it even had the temerity to consider, though defeated a motion of no-confidence in the governor.

Councilor Yeung represents the southern side of Hong Kong in Legco. This is Hong Kong's ''gold coast,'' where apartments in Repulse Bay, popular with American expatriates, rent for more than $10,000 a month. But he has low-income constituents too, such as the residents of the public-housing estate he is canvassing.

It is not very friendly territory for the candidate, despite his liberal credentials. Many of the apartments are home to fishermen working for guilds supported by the Chinese government. They may vote for his opponent, Cheng Kai Nam, of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong.

In this election, one might say that Hong Kong people are enjoying almost too much of a good thing. Most can vote for two candidates, some even three. One ballot is for a representative from the voter's community. Then there are a bewildering number of ''functional constituencies'' organized around occupations.

Here's how it works. Let's say you are an accountant. First you vote for your local member, then for the candidate of the ''financial, insurance, real estate, and business services functional constituency.'' And there is an ''accountancy functional constituency.''

This somewhat confusing state of affairs is partly due to Gov. Christopher Patten's democratic reforms, which he proposed in July 1992. Mr. Patten simply took the entire work force, divided it into nine parts, and called them functional constituencies.

In doing so, he effectively expanded the number of seats elected by a mass franchise.

But he also incurred nearly three years of acrimony with Beijing.

Low voter registration

By government accounts, only about 10 percent of the eligible voters have bothered to register for these new districts. The government has boosted the total to about 40 percent by taking employment rolls and registering names and is also allowing foreign residents of seven years to vote. And despite all the confusion over different constituencies, Yeung says people are still concerned about rising unemployment, maintenance of housing estates, and that old Hong Kong perennial, high bus fares.

In fact, it is a straight fight between two main factions, which are labeled: ''pro-democracy'' and ''pro-Beijing.''

Broadly speaking, the pro-democracy camp seeks the widest representation in an independent legislature as the best way of preserving Hong Kong's promised autonomy after 1997. The pro-Beijing group believes that the territory's best interests are served by accommodating, not confronting China.

Beijing may disdain Patten's electoral reforms, but that hasn't prevented China from throwing money and other help behind friendly candidates, some of whom serve on advisory panels appointed by China.

But whatever the outcome, Beijing says it will disband Legco, which it considers unconstitutional, on July 1, 1997, the day the British Union Jack is hauled down. A provisional legislature will be appointed to write a new electoral law providing for a legislative council with fewer directly elected seats and less independence from the executive.

When asked if he ever expects to be able to run again after 1997, Yeung responds soberly. ''It depends. I don't see any reason not to unless I'm barred for being 'unpatriotic.' '' An official for China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office recently stated that future candidates must be ''patriotic'' and ''loyal.''

Yeung, however, thinks it would be difficult for China to bar popular politicians from running again because, ''it would be a shock to the community. I'm confident I'll be elected again,'' he says. And then he turns and trots down the corridor to shake some more hands.

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