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Hong Kong Speaks

May 29, 1998



Hong Kong's democrats have returned, as they promised nearly a year ago with MacArthur-like determination.

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Led by the irrepressible Martin Lee (who initiated the "we shall return" chorus), candidates committed to democracy won more than 60 percent of the popular vote in last Sunday's balloting, the first since Chinese rule began last July 1. Voter turnout was 53 percent, far higher than in the past.

All this electoral vigor, alas, does not translate into political power. Under a system designed to limit popular government, Mr. Lee and his democratic cohorts will hold just under a third of the seats in the Legislative Council. The rest of the council's 60 seats are chosen by professional groups called "functional constituencies," or by an Election Committee, which has clear pro-Beijing leanings.

Still, the democrats will form an open, vocal opposition - the first within China's vast realm. Lee and others want a rapid move to direct popular election of the whole legislative body, as envisioned in the turnover agreement with Britain. But Tung Chee Hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, strongly opposes this.

China's restraints on freedom won't last indefinitely, however. The communist system is marbled with transforming currents - most, but not all, of them economic.

Beijing's current party chiefs may think they can engineer a future for China that blends capitalist practice and communist governance. The democrats of Hong Kong, now part of the mix, won't hesitate to point out the fallacy in that.