HONG KONG — When China's leaders peer beyond their borders, they see a similar phenomenon in almost every direction, something they aren't particularly enthused about: people voting. From the peaceful elections across the Indonesian archi- pelago this week, to millions of voters in India and the Philippines in May, to national ballots in Malaysia and Taiwan, China appears literally surrounded by the exercise of democracy rights in Asia.
Now there's Hong Kong, again. Since 450,000 residents flooded streets here for the second year in a row to ask for more democracy and direct elections, China has issued four statements of "no." Democrats here say the July 1 march is clear cause for Beijing to reconsider its controversial rule not to allow direct elections in 2007. But envoy Li Gang was unequivocal: "The decision [in Beijing] is final. It is unwise to try to achieve what is unachievable."
More broadly, Asia's winds of democracy are an unsettling new element for China. Protests, political expression, street talking and walk- ing are an implicit challenge for Beijing, one that comes just as China is feeling more confident, experts say. China's one-party state prizes certainty and stability; foreign investment remains strong. Yet political examples in the region are not reassuring: Indian voters tossed out the pro-business BJP nationalist party in May. Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun was indicted. In Taiwan, China's most sensitive subject, 2 million people held hands across the island in a show of solidarity last March - then narrowly reelected President Chen Shui-bian, persona non grata in China for his ideas of independence.
"Beijing is looking all around the neighborhood, and not finding much to rejoice in," says Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project here. "There were bitter feelings about the Taiwan elections, and then they were blindsided by July 1 in Hong Kong. In a system that can't easily make structural changes and adjustments, this is a cause for frustration."
Nor does popular feeling across Asia for the electoral franchise allow China to easily fall back upon old ideological arguments. Beijing elites have long argued that democracy in Asia was unnatural, forced upon the region by foreign powers like the US or Great Britain. Yet few Asia watchers will suggest that Indonesia, which has clearly distanced itself from the US, was coerced into voting. In fact, the nation of some 17,000 islands - the largest Muslim state in the world - negotiated hurdles of poverty and long distances to produce an 80-percent turnout in a vote where two candidateswill face a runoff election in September. Stubbornly independent India triumphed similarly in its election.
"Indonesia is very instructive," says a European scholar in Beijing. "We are always told that China is too big, poor, and complex to have elections. No country is more complex than Indonesia, and it is huge. But it seems capable of successful elections. A few years ago, people were saying it was too divided and would collapse."
Hong Kong's street protest on July 1 was twice the size that either the local government or organizers predicted. The march suggested unmistakably that a broad swath of the Hong Kong mainstream were troubled by their political future, and unhappy both with Beijing's strictures and with Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Che-hwa. Last year's spontaneous 500,000-plus march took place in what experts called a "perfect storm" of a bad economy, a hugely demoralizing SARS epidemic, and as Mr. Tung was ramming through a very unpopular antisubversion law that would restrict religious and press rights, according to its critics. This year, none of these factors were in play - yet the turnout on the hottest day of the year reversed assumptions that without a proximate cause of suffering, Hong Kong would ignore the call to march.
Apart from a small China Daily article stating that "marchers caused a traffic jam" in Hong Kong, Chinese state media on the mainland did not report the protest.
One sensitivity has to do with how Beijing treats its urban elites. If Hong Kong receives something akin to direct elections, experts say, what is to stop the wealthy or educated classes in Shanghai for asking for similar treatment?
In September, Hong Kong will hold an election for a miniparliament. Should pro-democracy candidates win a majority, the city could engineer constitutional change that would put Beijing in the awkward position of allowing reform - or once again saying no. Last fall in district council elections, the democrats won 69 to 12.
In the past month, Chinese officials and leading Hong Kong democrats, including Martin Lee, have engaged in a dance of reconciliation. Polls show that while Hong Kong people want to adhere to principles of greater freedom, they do not want politicians to appear too confrontational. In the spring, democrats often countered strongly during a pressure campaign from Beijing. Yet Mr. Lee began to support a conciliatory pose, even agreeing with Beijing's request that "people power" slogans at the July protest be censored.
"In warfare, to be predictable makes you vulnerable," says Mr. DeGolyer. "Martin Lee offered a surprising strategy. Beijing provoked and expected intransigence in response. What they got instead was reassurance. That threw them. It also now allows the democrats to tell the people of Hong Kong in September, 'you can safely vote for us, we won't bring strife on the streets.' It was a master move."
In Beijing, few close observers feel the country is prepared to take the leap toward anything like free elections. While some officials will speak of a need for more flexibility, they do not want to set a date.
Contradictions in reform were on display in the past week: On July 2 a pair of Party School instructors in Liaoning Province published an essay, "Information Must Flow Freely," that criticized China's "current political communication system" as wrongly "asymmetric." If news is available only from the Party, the authors Hou Qi and Wei Ziyang pointed out, this will increase a sense of public frustration.
The same day, Xinhua, the state media organ, announced that China's cell phone text-messaging would be monitored and censored. Text messaging is wildly popular as a form of unofficial information dissemination on subjects from foreign news to human-rights abuses, and was key last year as an early warning system on SARS.